Despite Obama, Race and Ethnicity Still Divide America

15:13Ciaran McCormick

Six years of an Obama presidency is enough time to conclude that the central problems squared up to in 2008's tide of optimism remain unresolved. Most importantly, race is still a central dividing line in America. Many commentators believed when an African-American was elected to the highest and most iconic position in America that it signalled a historical shift towards a post-racial society. The grim history of slavery and segregation had been abandoned by an enlightened modern society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conservative Americans that claim to be colour blind ignore the structural barriers faced by racial and ethnic minorities. They entrench this oppression in society by not dealing with it and assuming it will simply go away.

Flickr: Justin Sloan

There are some respected commentators that have made the case that race is less important, such as William Julius Wilson who published 'The Declining Significance of Race' in 1980. He argued that race was a declining marker of a person's position in society because differences between races were fundamentally based on their class and economic status. Disadvantaged African-Americans experience higher levels of poverty and unemployment because economic resources have been systematically appropriated by the white population.

In the South, slaves were prevented from building up wealth that could be passed onto future generations. In contrast, the north of the United States was never dependent on slavery. It was able to industrialise and create a more productive form of capitalism that offered African-Americans unrivalled opportunities. Therefore, since the economic prosperity of any group in society is variable and can be improved, the relationship between classes is the issue on which policymakers should focus. Race is no longer the primary determinant of life chances in America. However, this central  argument is flawed. It neglects the intersectionality between class and race and the unique challenges faced by underprivileged ethnic minorities compared to their white counterparts.

At a basic economic level, African-American families have an average median income almost $20,000 lower than white families. This is the lowest of any racial group and is a shocking figure. Even this is historically high compared to the salary levels before the 1990s. Obama has targeted some economic policies towards the improvement of this inequality. For example, he has used the Minority Business Development Agency to target ethnic minorities with billions of dollars worth of contracts and financing to encourage enterprise and job creation.

Nonetheless, economic inequality is reproduced by the influence of a range of social issues that have deprived a generation of young black people of the opportunities enjoyed by colour blind white Americans. Obama called education the 'civil rights issue of our time'. He has championed it with programmes such as Race to the Top, where schools can compete for $4.35 billion of school improvement funds. However, educational inequality is a modern reality, often linked to housing. Most African-Americans prefer to live in mixed neighbourhoods but end up living in predominantly black neighbourhoods. Feeling threatened by their unfair stereotypes and preconceptions, 'white flight' has become a dangerous phenomenon, where white residents leave areas that attract minority residents. This can concentrate inequality in an area and produce worse quality schools and social conditions.

Flickr: les_batteries

Obama is an important representative for these causes but alone he is not enough. He was faced with a Congress and federal system in which white privilege dominates and division and gridlock thwart idealistic policymaking. The real problem is the lack of systematic representation for these communities. Prisoners in America are often stripped of their right to vote and this has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable black communities. High crime rates linked to issues such as poverty and education mean that almost 10% of black males aged 25-29 are in prison and a high percentage have been disenfranchised. However, in 2012 for the first time, a larger proportion of the eligible black population voted than the white population. There are so many structural barriers in place that will prevent this from translating into more equal political representation.

The progress that African-Americans have enjoyed has still fallen short of equality. A conservative backlash has still emerged, though, using the idea that America is a post-racial society to complain that challenging the embedded inequality amounts to demanding greater rights. Clearly, this misrepresents reality. No minority is seeking privilege, whether that be women or the LGBT population. They only want the access to the good life and rights that the privileged groups in society have enjoyed and denied them for the rest of history. Backlash is a horrible but real response to these movements. On race, it has spiked viciously. Outspoken Senator Jay Rockefeller suggested recently that Republicans have challenged many of Obama's policies such as healthcare reform because of his skin colour and its socially constructed threat. It caused controversy. Some of that controversy probably arose because Rockefeller's charge resonated truthfully with opponents of Obama who were called out on their racism.

There are more benign examples of backlash out there that still represent an insidious challenge to the progress of ethnic minorities in America. The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of minority rights in some groundbreaking cases in US history. In 2013 one of their rulings upended much of the hard work of the civil rights movement and exposed the racial divisions of the past. Shelby County v Holder ruled that parts of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. They struck down parts of a crucial law that challenged the widespread discrimination in voting faced by African-Americans. The part in question was the section that designates which areas of the country must have changes to their voting laws cleared by federal government. This was all because Congress had not updated the coverage formula used for fifty years. This might seem reasonable but has lifted one of the main controls on states voting laws. This is worrying given that Texas and South Carolina have both tried to introduce laws that would require voters to have ID, which would disproportionately harm minorities without the means or resources to procure identification. The Supreme Court created this gaping loophole in the full knowledge that Congress is so divided and partisan that it will struggle to pass an updated coverage formula and restore the Voting Rights Act as a fundamental safeguard. These malignant and benign examples of backlash highlight the divide in America over racial politics.

It would be foolish to assume that this is the only dividing line in race in the United States. Other ethnic minorities also face unique structural challenges. The most modern wave of immigration is by Hispanic Americans, coming largely from Mexico but also from a range of other Central and Southern American countries. Many people have tried to use the struggles faced by these people as a way to prove that the country is post-racial. They claim that African-Americans should stop complaining because the new waves of immigration highlight the post-racial society and the new challenges ahead. The growing importance of the Hispanic population actually represents the opposite. It shows that American political culture has a real problem with its identity. It is fixated on an idyllic past in which white Founding Fathers embodied the American dream. Non-white Americans are othered and must assimilate into society and embrace white values and practices in order to be successful. Both African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans face structural barriers and oppression that colour blind conservatives ignore.

Flickr: Urban Woodswalker

This new wave of immigration re-casts the same political themes in a different light. The Hispanic population is an economically underprivileged class in America, including over 12 million unauthorised and undocumented immigrants. Hispanic people suffer employment, medical uninsurance and poverty disproportionately compared to the white population. They diverse and rich community is conflated in the immigration debate, with its overtones of racism, terrorism prevention and a populist fear of the foreign. The American racial identity crisis is worryingly mainstream. For example, one of the most esteemed conservative political scientists Samuel Huntington published 'The Hispanic Challenge'. In the article, he worried that Hispanic immigration would divide the United States into two nations with two cultures and two languages. He believed it was a unique wave of immigration because of its proximate border, regional concentration of immigrants and large scale. But this scaremongering is counter-productive and creates an 'us and them' divide.


In contrast, Asian American immigrants are often praised in this broad brush treatment of race. All of these terms are problematic for conflating diverse cultures, people and attitudes in a way that the 'white community' is rarely subjected to. However, one of the most problematic terms is the label of model minority given to immigrants from Asia to America . The narrative believes that they assimilate successfully into American society, work hard and become prosperous and successful citizens. By implication, other minorities do not. This idea is troubling because it argues that the success of racial minorities is down to their effort rather than the structure of their world, their class, education, environment, crime, political representation, housing and every other factor. Obama is often the epitome of this argument, as an African-American that has reached stratospheric levels of political office. This completely ignores his privilege and the educational opportunities he has enjoyed. A generation of African-American and Hispanic Americans faces structural inequalities that they cannot control and that oppress them. It is outrageous for a white American to tell them that they do not see race in political issues.

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