Right now we may still be in the euphoria stage. All Americans, even many who voted for John McCain, may be enjoying the moral buzz of having chosen the country’s first African-American chief executive. But, sooner or later, tough questions will arise. The mainstream media’s loose and frequent use of the term “post-racial” to describe the Obama era foreshadows the discussion.
The first tough question is, of course: Exactly what is “post-racial” supposed to mean?
If it means that the United States is no longer, in any real sense, the “white man’s country” that it was 100 years ago, then we’ve definitely arrived. The U.S. president is not a prime minister; he is the embodiment of the nation and its state. And a substantial majority of the nation, widely dispersed across geographic regions, has chosen a man of African descent to embody us.
For nearly 300 years, from the late 1600s to the mid-20th century, a persistent undercurrent of racist mythology in white America equated the physical characteristics of sub-Saharan Africa with subservience, inferiority, and even savagery. At some deep level, white America needed that myth to justify its toleration of African slavery and later of the Southern system of disenfranchisement and segregation.
But now, after less than a half-century of legal equality between the races, that equation has been largely erased. That is not insignificant. And as the novelty wears off and our black president becomes a commonplace, the significance of the change will become even greater. People of African descent will be seen less and less as creatures of those old mythologies and more and more as folks among folks, Americans among Americans.
BUT DOES THAT mean race will no longer have any significance in America’s public life or public policies? If that’s what we mean by “post-racial,” then we’d better banish the term right away. The effects of those 300 years for the people who were on the receiving end are still with us, and they are plainly visible in social statistics. According to William Spriggs, chair of the economics department at Howard University, writing in The American Prospect, “The median earnings for white men with only a high school education were $36,539 in 2006 ... But the median earnings for blacks (men and women) with only a high school education were $24,669, almost $12,000 a year less or about one-third less than the earnings of white men.” Spriggs goes on to note that in July 2008, before the big surge of job losses that followed the financial crash, 9.4 percent of black high school graduates were unemployed, compared to 5.4 percent of whites.
Black Americans do better when they have more education, but the racial difference in the distribution of society’s rewards is still enormous. Spriggs finds that, “In 2000 when black family income reached a record high, blacks had reached the high school completion rate reached by whites in 1991, and the college completion rate reached by whites in 1977, but only the income of white families from 1963!” Algernon Austin, of the Economic Policy Institute, recently reported that in 2005 median black household income was only 60.2 percent that of the median white household.
The point here is that we can’t talk about a post-racial United States on the basis of one breakthrough moment. The significance of race in America wasn’t ended when Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling, or when Jackie Robinson made the majors. The story wasn’t even over a few years ago, when all the singles on the Billboard Top 10 were by black artists, and it isn’t over now.
Obama’s election does change the racial landscape in the U.S. It is already changing white perceptions and black aspirations. And his significance for the future of race in America is not just symbolic. That will be especially true if he brings us economic policies that lift the incomes of all Americans, of all races, in the bottom third of the economy, who have been slipping further and further behind for the past decade.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.