The inauguration of President Obama on Martin Luther King Jr. day is a powerful symbol of the progress in race relations in America. Symbols, however, do not have universal meaning. Since the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the nation has had to contend with two competing narratives: one, the election of the nation’s first African-American president meant America was now post-racial. The second narrative was that the election of Barack Obama meant that “America” was in peril, and that a Socialist Kenyan became president again through nefarious means. Which narrative will prevail in President Obama’s second term? It depends on how race is confronted in the president’s second term, not only by the president, but by concerned Americans.
Since the presidential election of 2008, race relations in this country have deteriorated with the rumors that the president is a crypto Muslim, a Kenyan or any of the myriad of names (Obozo, Obummer) that have been given to him by conservative talk show pundits and detractors. Consistent calls for the president’s birth certificate during his first term, and other racial epithets and slurs from many sources including Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Rush Limbaugh seeped into portions of the country's psyche, angering many people of color and galvanizing disenfranchised whites into polarized political camps. These racialized slurs against the president, fueled by conservative radio, television, and print media, have turned into a cottage industry of T-shirts, buttons and posters sold online and at Tea Party and other political rallies. Those who have promoted this racism are also quick to say that they are not “racists,” further compounding the issue.
All of this racial animus tumbled into the 2012 election campaign, leaving the Romney/Ryan ticket to win 59% of white voters in the 2012 election. That was 20 points more than the Obama/Biden ticket. Despite this, the president won by a large margin, and with a broad coalition of support from all ethnic groups. With the president’s win, the racial animus has continued, threatening to engulf his second term as well.
There is no better time than the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Jr. birthday for the president to address the legacy of race and racism in the United States. Most Americans remember one important line from the “I have a Dream Speech”: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The quote of King is lifted out of a critical speech highlighting the problems of the civil rights movement. Now it is used to validate America’s so-called post-racial society. The reality is, the last four years have been anything but “post racial.”
At the beginning of President Obama’s second term, it is important that the boil of racism festering during the last four years be lanced. How? By the president’s acknowledging the tensions in this country that are being currently racialized: gun control, health care, and immigration. While the president’s race speech back in 2008 was a necessity on the campaign trail, perhaps the inauguration speech or his State of the Union address could acknowledge these tensions, explaining how they they subvert or distort our attempts to deal with the problems themselves.
How we as a nation work through our racial issues is important as we draw closer to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. America’s history in race relations has always been fraught, and it is time to revisit the legacy of the civil rights movement once more. The issues of race are not simply black and white, but now encompass a changing demographic in a nation of immigrants. If the president ignores the clamor, the poison will continue to seep, destroying “our more perfect union.” Now is the time to address the festering survival of racism, before divisions in our nation grow any deeper. We will become "post racial" not by ceasing to talk about race, but by talking more: pulling the ugliness out of the codes and subtexts where it lurks, and confronting it directly.
Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.