The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions
Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 10, 2008
Rick Montgomery and Scott Canon have an interesting piece in the Kansas City Star on how attitudes towards race may change as a result of the first African-American becoming President of the United States. We excerpt the piece below.
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Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House raises anew the question of whether color lines, however faded, still exist in America.
They do — just look at housing patterns, church congregations and prison populations. But will the election of a biracial president — with the blessings of much, but not yet a majority, of white America — find the country concluding that it has finally overcome its race thing?
“One reaction might be, see, a black man can reach the top — why can’t the others?” said Christian Crandall, a social psychologist at the University of Kansas. “There’s no way to avoid that problem,” he said. “It’s the price of success.”
Obama’s election may offer evidence to some white Americans that doors of opportunity once barred by racial bias have swung open.
“I wouldn’t buy the argument because I tend to measure things more by statistics” on persistent economic disparities between races, said Roderick Harrison, a sociologist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on black issues. “It underestimates just how exceptional Obama is and the culmination of being the right person at the right time.”
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Research has shown that people of all races become more accepting of racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power through experience. Someone who has already worked for a black boss, for instance, or had important Latino clients, is less skeptical of their capabilities.
In that way, Harrison said, Obama’s mere presence could have an almost subconscious effect on how Americans view the capabilities of minorities.
For Charles McKinney of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., the thought of “my children growing up seeing a brother as the leader of the free world, that’s priceless.”
As much as white audiences admired TV’s Huxtables of “The Cosby Show,” research in the early 1990s revealed many viewers held the family up as a model to which other black families should — but wouldn’t — aspire.
“Bill Cosby’s white audience didn’t want to be reminded of America’s racial past,” said Sut Jhally, who wrote Enlightened Racism after conducting the studies for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “They loved the blackness, but only a certain kind of blackness…
“The unintended message was, ‘If you work hard, you can succeed … and if you fail, the fault must be yours,’ ” said Jhally. “In terms of overall race relations, it was one step forward and two steps back.”
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In a national survey, half the country agreed with the statement that “Irish, Italians, Jewish and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up, blacks should do the same without special favors.” Almost two in five agreed that blacks would be as well off as whites if they “would only try harder.”
A third of whites said that blacks are responsible for most or all of the country’s racial tension. And given a set of words to describe blacks, at least one in five whites agreed with “violent,” “boastful” and “complaining.” One in 10 agreed blacks are “lazy” or “irresponsible.”
So while white America can’t assume all is forgiven, neither can those who have battled racism expect that the mere presence of a black family in the White House protects black shoppers from the glares of sales clerks or racial profiling by police.
“Obama’s victory says we have the ability to transcend race, but we still have a huge opportunity to move ahead and do all that must be done next,” said Gwen Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “We can’t just relax.”
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For the rest of the article, click here. For other Situationist articles on President-Elect Obama, click here. For some other related Situationist posts, see “The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” and “Banaji & Greenwald on Edge – Part IV.”