Column, 681 words

Obama’s Inauguration Didn’t End American Racism

Having an African-American president hasn't exactly ushered in a period of racial harmony.

William A. Collins

Got our leader
Into power,
Why does life,
Still seem so sour?

Since Obama’s election, a destructive new thread in conservative commentary has emerged: “Blacks have finally arrived. We don’t need to concern ourselves with ‘them’ anymore. If we can elect an African-American president, then prejudice must be dead.” The unspoken corollary is, “OK, they got what they wanted. Now we can go back to discriminating again.”

School ResegregationAs if to emphasize this point, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell (R) issued a provocative proclamation praising the brave Confederate boys who fell in The War Between The States. Recent Democratic governors didn’t produce such statements, and even recent Republican ones had included wording to make plain that they weren’t supporting slavery. McDonnell didn’t even add that kind of fig leaf—until the ensuing uproar essentially forced him to do it. Such is the perceived sentiment these days that one can support discrimination pretty openly. And just in case you might think Virginia’s Confederate History Month stunt could be an aberration, note that Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama have all declared their own version of it in recent years.

It’s not that American racism ever went away. If things seemed to pick up for minorities during the artificial boom years, it had little to do with public intention. If African Americans had an easier time buying a house, it was more because the market was overbuilt than because of any greater tolerance. If mortgages were easily available, it was more due to the need for new swindle victims than to bankers experiencing a sudden vision of racial harmony.

Schools, too, are still a mixed bag. Obama’s inauguration spawned no new flood of integration. If anything, America’s slow drift toward re-segregation has continued unabated. Now that No Child Left Behind has proved largely ineffective, the latest fad is to fire all the staff at a failing school and hire new teachers and administrators. Not much talk, though, of more money or services to bring individual low performers up to speed. Less talk yet about wide-ranging district mergers to force more integration.

Jobs haven’t provided any relief either. Black unemployment remains far above the rate for whites at all education levels, worsened now by the recession. Cases are even cited of blacks scrubbing their resumes to bleach out telltale signs of race. Sure, they’ll get discovered at the interview, but in the nuanced world of bias they may be over the hump by then.

Having an African-American president doesn’t seem to have much altered police behavior either. Random stops on city sidewalks and highways continue to follow historic patterns. Connecticut passed a law in 1999 requiring police departments to submit periodic reports on the racial makeup of such suspects to the African-American Affairs Commission. Nice try. Only a handful of departments bother filing the reports at all, and the commission has no budget to analyze them. There’s no enforcement.

New York City and other big places are constantly under the gun for such profiling. In the Big Apple last year, blacks were seven times more likely to get busted for plain old pot possession than whites, even though studies show their usage to be about equal.

Housing policy is more of the same. Westchester County, a large New York suburb, signed a federal agreement to build hundreds of affordable homes and market a slew of them to blacks. Nice thought. Six months later, only pretense had been accomplished and no one has been put in charge of anything.

Nor are they ever likely to be. Some jurisdictions around the nation with particularly strong leadership for a few years have successfully integrated a bit of housing and some schools. Mostly though, leaders of that stripe soon get unelected and the community returns to its regular segregated course.

None of this has changed with Barack Obama’s presidency. Citizens just treat him as an intriguing racial interlude while going on about their often discriminatory lives.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.