Posted by: Jordan | January 22, 2009

Barack Obama and Identity Politics

With the inauguration of President Obama this week, the idea has become prevalent that the last significant racial barrier has been broken in America, and that being born black need no longer limit your options in life. This is significant because it will no doubt have a serious impact on the public’s willingness to support so called “affirmative action” programs, whereby institutions and companies are compelled by law to hire a certain percentage of visible minorities. I suspect we would be having the same conversation here in Canada with respect to academic and other institutions were we to elect an Aboriginal Prime Minister.
I think this idea is true to a point, but it is only half the story. While virtually no one would argue that racism no longer exists, there are many people that believe that it has receded to a point where we no longer need institutional support for racial, cultural, or gender equality. In other words, if a black man can become President of the United States, then a black man can achieve any profession, appointment, or office that he so desires. What is correct about this, I think, is that racism is in steady decline and has reached a point where not all, but most, citizens of the United States understand that there is no such thing as a “racial hierarchy” — there is no inherent superiority or inferiority to being born of any particular race. With the civil rights movement only one generation behind us, this is a very significant achievement, and it deserves to be recognized.

This, as I have said, is only half the story. The important point that is missing here is that people are not recognizing that institutional support for minorities, women, Aboriginals, the disabled, the LGBT community, etc, does NOT exist to correct racism, sexism, or homophobia. The idea is not to “correct” people’s behaviour at all; in fact, in our society you are welcome to be racist, sexist or homophobic if you so choose. Rather, institutional support for these groups is there to make up for institutional inequities that exist as a result of past injustice. The election of Barack Obama is certainly a very symbolic triumph against racism and that should be celebrated, but it says nothing about the persistent disparity of income and wealth between white and black Americans. Affirmative action programs were not put in place to try to correct racism, but rather they are a recognition of the seriously disadvantageous position that black Americans were kept in throughout the times of slavery and segregation. Neither Barack Obama’s family, nor he, were affected either by slavery or unjust racial politics of pre-1960’s America. Thus, while his election is representative of positive changes in attitudes towards racism, it by no means indicates that any representative black man in America has the same opportunity to achieve any job, office or appointment as a representative white man.
Of course, many will achieve great things. Given the same opportunities, any black man or woman is just as likely to succeed as any Anglo, Asian, or Hispanic man or woman. However, the point is that, due to America’s political history, far fewer black men and woman will be given the same kinds of opportunities. A President Obama shows us how quickly racial attitudes can change, but his election will not itself provide any more opportunities to the black community in America. There still remains plenty of need for recognizing systematic inequities presented not only to black men and women, but many other groups as well. The transition into modernity is constantly being marked by a rejection of hierarchies – racial, cultural, and sexual – and institutional action is still needed to right past wrongs that were committed in their name.



  1. I read your post. Thank you, dnalel

  2. ‘Sup?

    Where do we situate class in this debate? While having equal opportunity is an essential pre-requisite, socio-economic background frames the individual’s potential to seize available opportunities. Even if Barack Obama never entered politics, Sasha and Malia Obama would have manifestly different lives than those of two other young black girls born into poverty in somewhere likesay rural Mississippi.

    Much ado has been made of race in the run up to Obama’s election. While it is, as you say, symbolically important, what impressed me more was that the Obamas were comparatively disconnected from the American power elite. To have built mass political momentum from average circumstances is tremendous, in my opinion. Michelle Obama in particular strikes a chord with women of all races and backgrounds in part because of her humble beginnings and she does not have the mien of privilege, despite being a part of the elite class through most of her adult life. Contrast Michelle Obama’s popular reception with that of Condoleeza Rice’s. She is the first black woman to have served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, but these accomplishments were not lauded as she was born on third base, and there were far fewer institutionalized obstacles for her. I interpret this as tacit public knowledge that great achievement in America is usually buttressed by having socio-economic status.

    However, discussions of class and status seem to be gauche in American culture, owing to the American Dream that anyone can achieve anything with hard work. The premium is placed on the individual and his capacity to make rational choices. Thus, descrimination based upon factors you cannot choose (race, gender) is bad. (Sidebar comment: the jury is still out in the case of Average Joe and Jane v. Is Sexuality a Choice). However, the idea still persists that you chose your class and if you don’t like it, you can make the choice to change your personal circumstances. My view is that this overplays individual autonomy and undervalues the role and influence of institutions. When the government attempts to reconcile institutions of inequality, it’s often tarred as socialist.

    Any way you slice it, we both think that institutions matter.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me from this politicoblogwank, I have to go play squash, a game formerly reserved for the elite and now played by the unwashed masses like me.

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