Real change, lingering racism

Posted: November 10, 2008

IT'S AN UNDERSTATEMENT to say that Barack Obama's election as president of the United States is a truly historic moment in America.

Indeed, it is a monumental moment everywhere - and one I didn't think would happen in my lifetime. America has elected its first black president. And what's important is that it provides an opportunity for a public dialogue on America's long-standing and divisive problem of race.

In the weeks leading up to the election, much was written about the effect that race would have on it. Many claimed that Obama's election would prove that racism is no longer a problem in our country.

But while his election is a racial milestone, it is simplistic to believe that this election alone can solve this complex issue, or that it has done so.

To begin, Obama's successful campaign was about more than race. His intelligence, education, experience and views on critical issues such as the economy, the Iraq war and health care all made him a worthy choice for president.

More important, however, it is a mistake to measure the state of American racism by looking at one person, even if that person becomes president. Rather, the status of racism should be measured by examining how the majority of a group fares in society. By this measure, there can be little doubt that things have not significantly improved over the past few decades.

Many people of color continue to suffer discrimination in housing, employment, consumer services and in the delivery of various other services, including medical care.

In law, medical, business and other professional schools, enrollment and graduation for people of color is drastically low - dropping by 8.5 percent and 9.2 percent over the last 15 years for blacks and Mexican-Americans, respectively. The Society of American Law Teachers refers to this as "the disappearing act."

In turn, not surprisingly, the percentage of people of color in law firms, hospitals and corporate boardrooms is also disproportionately low. These statistics almost surely evince pervasive racism.

To the extent that racism has actually declined, as supposedly demonstrated by Obama's election, it is likely that only overt racism has done so. Overt racism is expressed in contemptible and abhorrent acts such as hate crimes, cross burnings and racial insults. Such racism still exists, but has, arguably, become more isolated.

But racism is so much more. In particular, "unconscious racism" flourishes.

Unconscious racism, as the name suggests, refers to racism that a person is not aware of. Indeed, many of us are oblivious of our racist inclinations.

Professor Charles Lawrence argues that two ideas explain the unconscious nature of our racially discriminatory beliefs. First, the human mind copes with both guilty ideas and ideas that are inconsistent with what we have learned is right. The mind does so by refusing to recognize those ideas. The internal conflict between our cultural and historical experience of racism and the recent belief that racism is immoral results in our mind defending itself by excluding evidence of racism from its consciousness.

Second, our culture - including friends, the media and everyday encounters - transmits beliefs and preferences, including those heavily influenced by racism. In this way, racism is transmitted by tacit understanding, rather than experienced by explicit lessons. Yet it becomes part of our perception of the world. Examples of unconscious racism as applied to President Obama might be reflected in comments such as "Obama isn't really black" or "Obama is different from other blacks." Regardless of the nature of the racism, it still exists.

TO BE SURE, THE country has come a long way since the days

of lynching, legalized and institutional racism, and overt racism. People of color have achieved some level of upward mobility.

And although it has taken nearly a century and a half since the first black was elected to Congress to elect our first black president, it is a sign of hope.

The election of Obama doesn't demonstrate that racism is no longer an issue in America, but it does provide us with an exceptionally unique opportunity to discuss racism in a meaningful way.

We can tackle long-standing cultural stereotypes and address historical inequalities. By recognizing all forms of racism, we can eradicate racism and its vestiges. I remain positive that we can do so, and I'm optimistic that Obama's election will open the dialogue necessary to do so.

Change has come to America. And its name is Barack Obama. *

Donald P. Harris is an associate professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

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