For reasons more aspirational than rooted in reality, Barack Obama’s election as the United States’ 44th president heralded a brief moment of hope that Americans had moved away from the destructive and weaponized use of race in our public interactions. What else could explain the breathless optimism? Finally, Americans exhaled, seemingly exultant that, at long last, a nation birthed in slavery, reared by “Jim Crow,” and still struggling to recognize (and overcome) institutional racism was free of its past. The misunderstood dream of a “color-blind” electorate seemed to have spoken by electing an African-American as its leader. Finally, so many wanted to shout, “Say it loud! We are post-racial and proud!”
Ah, if only it were true. Anyone who’s read William Faulkner understands perfectly: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Racism in the Era of Obama
As much as we might wish and hope otherwise, the struggle over identity politics didn’t—indeed, it couldn’t—end with President Obama’s election or reelection. Our history won’t allow for such a smooth move away from the deeply embedded attitude that rugged individualism (embodied exclusively by white, privileged, men, whose superiority is still assumed by all too many) is what makes this nation great. With the president and his supporters preoccupied with inaugural celebrations, reactionary strategists met to plot a course that would deny the new elected leader any success. Meanwhile, great waves of deniers pressed their discredited doubts; they sought to refute and impugn any legitimacy bestowed upon a black man who pocketed the keys to the White House.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates made clear in his Atlantic article “Fear of a Black President,” racism has shadowed the Obama administration from the moment it became clear he would be the Democrats’ nominee. No matter how hard Obama has tried to avoid the issue of race, his opponents have not allowed it. The rise of the Tea Party conservatives ensured a continuing focus on this issue. Their early opposition to the new president amounted to open racial hostility, designed to render his every effort unworkable in the minds of white voters.
Still, in the face of constant and unrelenting opposition, President Obama’s elections in 2008 and reelection in 2012 heralded a new day, a moment of reflection and opportunity, in that ongoing struggle to define what—or just as importantly, who—is America. It is, as if, by electing a black president all the issues of identity bubble to the forefront of public awareness in spite of our collective design that they remain beneath the surface. It’s hard to overlook race when the face of the man representing the nation is so different from that of his predecessors.
The Challenge of Coalition-Building
Our collective identities are likely to be the point of contention because the nation is morphing into something new right before our eyes. As journalist Ronald Brownstein has noted, expanded immigration and higher fertility rates among racial and ethnic minority populations have “literally changed the face of America.” In a 2010 National Journal article that analyzed Census projections, Brownstein noted the changes, with some alarm over the generational mismatch between the past and future of the nation’s population.
As recently as 1980, minorities made up about one-fifth of the total population and one-fourth of children under eighteen. Today, the Census Bureau reports, racial minorities represent about 35 percent of the total population and 44 percent of children under eighteen. Whites make up 56 percent of young people and 80 percent of seniors. The 24-point spread between the white percentage of the senior and the youth populations is what noted Brookings Institute demographer William Frey calls the “cultural generation gap.”
As Brownstein warns:
A contrast in needs, attitudes, and priorities is arising between a heavily (and soon majority) nonwhite population of young people and an overwhelmingly white cohort of older people. Like tectonic plates, these slow-moving but irreversible forces may generate enormous turbulence as they grind against each other in the years ahead.
Already, some observers see the tension between the older white and younger nonwhite populations in disputes as varied as Arizona's controversial immigration law and a California lawsuit that successfully blocked teacher layoffs this year at predominantly minority schools. The 2008 election presented another angle on this dynamic, with young people (especially minorities) strongly preferring Democrat Barack Obama, and seniors (especially whites) breaking solidly for Republican John McCain.
Over time, the major focus in this struggle is likely to be the tension between an aging white population that appears increasingly resistant to taxes and dubious of public spending, and a minority population that overwhelmingly views government education, health, and social-welfare programs as the best ladder of opportunity for its children. "Anything to do with children in the public arena is going to generate a stark competition for resources," Frey says.
It need not be a divisive, zero-sum competition. Actually, if our never-ending political fights devolve into a fight that pits one group, one generation, or one race against all the multicultural “others,” then we all will surely lose. Obama won by appealing to a broad swath of voters—young, ethnically diverse, non-affluent, and all-in on progressive social change—who typically aren’t a part of the traditional political calculus. But he failed to garner much support among older, whiter Americans. The ongoing political battles that have plagued his administration cleave along this fault line. And, the nation has suffered as a result.
To be sure, there is an alternative. At the Center for American Progress, where I’m employed, a new project seeks to build on the political coalition that proved successful in President Obama and seeks to bring older white votes into the progressive camp. This initiative, the Robert Kennedy Project, borrows its name from the late New York senator who was the last major progressive political figure: Kennedy had attempted in 1968 to forge a coalition that placed white, working-class Americans’ interests cheek-and-jowl with those shared by black and poor Americans. “The goal here is not to just mobilize the Obama coalition but to expand it,” write my colleagues John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira.
Will that work? Or is that more “hope and change,” more aspiration over reality? America has no alternative, save to try and make it reality. Policies that are broad enough to encompass equality and growth are critical to unite a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-class coalition. Sure, we still must press back against the racist notions of white privilege that denies reality. But as political writer Joan Walsh has observed,
Not enough white people recognized the colorless, odorless oxygen of advantage they enjoy due to this country’s grim history of slavery and persistent discrimination. But there are other forms of privilege. Too often, our rhetoric around white privilege suggests to the white poor and working class that their problems aren’t the concern of the movement for social justice.
Walsh speaks true—white working-class concerns are part of the movement for social justice. Our shared nation’s future, if it survives, must become a place where Americans succeed at something we’ve promised, but never delivered. We must learn to live, work, and play without a single, ethnic-majority population dominating our society with its sheer size, political power, and economic clout dictating the unilateral terms of our coexistence. There will be no acceptable alternative.