President-Elect Barack Obama: A Postracial President Who Should Focus the Country on Race

Obama ran a raceless campaign, but must ignite a national focus on race, USC's Robin Kelley writes.


President-elect Obama speaks eloquently about creating green-collar jobs and retooling a dying manufacturing sector to jumpstart a clean-energy economy. But unless we eliminate persistent employment discrimination, reinvest in urban education, and relocate firms that fled to industrial suburbs back to cities, black and brown workers could be locked out of the new economy. President-elect Obama plans to provide affordable healthcare to all, but if we ignore the disappearance and deterioration of urban public hospitals, the black and Latino urban poor may have no decent place to go for emergency care.

Or consider how race shaped the subprime crisis. A recent study shows that African-Americans and Latinos were disproportionately affected by predatory lending schemes and experienced a higher percentage of foreclosures. According to the Federal Reserve Board, 53.7 percent of African-Americans and 46.6 percent of Latinos received high-priced loans, compared with 17.7 percent of whites. Of course, given the overwhelming history of racial discrimination by lending institutions, how FHA ratings devalued homes in black or mixed neighborhoods, and the use of redlining, blockbusting, and other forms of racial discrimination by real estate agencies, the racial disparities in the subprime crisis should not surprise us. But few Americans know this history.

President-elect Obama sees his administration continuing the Clinton years, which may include Clinton's call for a national conversation on race. We need more than another conversation; we need a "teach-in." We need to understand that racial justice and thoughtful, race- and gender-conscious policies that try to remedy persistent discrimination do not punish white people. On the contrary, they can benefit all Americans by raising wages, improving working and living conditions, maintaining economic stability, expanding the body politic, and building a society based on a beloved community rather than hatred, fear, and containment. This was the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream—not a colorblind society that ignores discrimination or wishes it away by refusing to acknowledge it but one in which color is not a badge of inferiority or criminality, where color does not determine the value of one's home, who is more likely to see jail time versus probation, or who is the most likely target to be purged from voting rolls.

Rather than unite the nation by putting our racial past and present aside, we can unite around a common commitment to end racial inequality. If we cared about Latino and Asian immigrants, we would not tolerate the sweatshop conditions many garment workers have to endure. If we actively challenged the very anti-Muslim xenophobia that helped justify what President-elect Obama calls a "stupid war," we would substitute fear with an enlightened domestic and foreign policy. Imagine a plan to rebuild and revitalize our inner cities that is based not on gentrification and displacement, but on people of all backgrounds living together, expanding our civic culture in communities that care for one another.

A pipe dream? On the contrary, this has been the vision of democracy that produced an Obama, a vision held by millions who helped elect our first community organizer president. The Obama phenomenon has given birth to a new generation of activists' take on racism and the other isms that have divided this country (i.e. sexism, militarism, classism, neoliberalism, etc.). The question isn't whether America is ready for a black president—it's whether the president is ready for the tidal wave of democracy his campaign has unleashed.

Robin D.G. Kelley is professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California.