How often have you heard people say that racism doesn’t exist, or that race no longer matters—“Just look at Oprah.” Interracial couples, a group experiencing a major growth spurt in the past decade, are frequently pointed to as evidence that racial borders or barriers no longer exist, or don’t matter.
The discourse that U.S. society is colorblind, or evolving in that direction, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Colorblind discourse is rooted in the belief that a persistent refusal to see differences in race, ethnicity, or color is: (1) humanistic (i.e., “we humans are all alike”; “there’s only one race—the human race”), and (2) socially and politically correct (i.e., one reduces the risk of being called racist if one does not see or acknowledge the importance of skin color in how people experience the world).
A colorblind stance dispatches the problem of race in one fell swoop, effectively taking those with race–based power and privilege “off the hook.” Elaine Pinderhughes (1989) writes that this stance “protects those holding it from awareness of their ignorance of others and the necessity of exerting the energy and effort to understand and bridge the differences” (44). Perhaps it is not surprising that many white people believe that the U.S. has already become a truly color-blind nation, with national polling demonstrating that a majority of whites now believe discrimination against racial minorities no longer exists (Twine & Gallagher 2008). But can race be erased so easily?
Parallels exist between the meanings and interpretations made of the increasing rates of interracial couples in the U.S. and a major milestone in the American political scene. On November 5th, 2008, The New York Times stated, “Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease as the country chose him as its first black chief executive.” Post (2009) summed up the discourse around Barack Obama’s election in the following way: “This narrative is all about race even as it makes various claims about the diminished significance of race: the prospect of racial healing, the ability of a new generation of Americans to transcend their own identity, and the emergence of a post-racial society”.
Much like the hullabaloo made over the increasing frequency and visibility of interracial couples and multiracial peoples, Obama’s election was accompanied by passionate, and premature, proclamations that racism was at an end in the U.S. After the November 2008 election, almost half of white voters (48%) and three-quarters of black voters (74%) said they expected to see race relations improve during Obama’s presidency. Voters were less effusive a year later, with a plurality of whites (45%) reporting that Obama’s election had made no difference to race relations, and 15% reporting it has made race relations worse (Pew Research Center 2010).
Taking the election of a black—black and white, in fact—chief executive as evidence that racial tension and inequality had been successfully dispatched was a quantum leap, with such an interpretation implying that no further work needed to be done in the quest for equality. The embracing of the notion of a “post-racial” U.S. in popular culture and mass media does not allow space for either acknowledgement of, or critical reflection on, racism as an ongoing phenomenon.
My question: In the age of Obama, are interracial couples and their children now blessed to live in a post-racial era where racial boundaries will simply vanish? According to the narratives shared by my research participants, the answer is a definite “no”; perhaps, one day, it might become a “yes”.
The more pundits declare the arrival of a post-racial society, the clearer it becomes that we’re not there yet. After President Obama’s State of the Union address in January 2010, commentator Chris Matthews quipped that he “forgot he was black.” Asked to explain his comment, Matthews stated that he had meant it as a compliment to President Obama for rendering race a “non-issue”. Matthews went on to assert that Obama is “post-racial”, rendering racial debate no longer relevant.
Obama’s election, just like the rise in interracial couples, continues to be used as a trope by some to support colorblind discourse. And while Matthews insisted he meant well (i.e., a case of overt, unintentional racism), and had not intended to be offensive (i.e., “it’s not my fault if you’re offended”), others wasted no time fanning the flames of racist political discourse and disinformation following Obama’s election.
The perception of Obama’s “otherness” has actually intensified since his election (New York Times, August 19, 2010), partially due to a macro-aggressive campaign. The Pew Research Center (2010) conducted a poll that found that 18% of Americans believed two years into Obama’s presidency that he was Muslim, up from 11% after his inauguration, and 27% Americans doubted he was born in the US, and, therefore, saw his election as suspect. Protest signs seen in recent years include “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery” and posters portraying the President as Hitler, an African “witch doctor”, and the arch-villain The Joker from the Batman comics and films.
In fact, the number of racially offensive images of President Obama and his wife proliferated so rapidly that Google began running an apology associated with the image search results (Blow 2009). The fact of President Obama does not allow us to rewrite history and remove race as a powerful organizing principle in U.S. society or even as a factor in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Voting results in battleground states broke down clearly along racial lines. In the South Carolina primary, Obama won 78% of the black vote, but only 24% of the white vote (National Public Radio, January 28, 2008). Innuendos that Obama had been born in Kenya and was secretly a Muslim would never have gained currency if white persons had not experienced him as “Other”.
Vast material disparities remain between blacks and whites. The median black worker earns about $600/week, approximately 80% of the median income of white workers. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that black men are imprisoned at 6.6 times the rate of white men, with nearly 1 in 20 black men incarcerated. The unemployment rate for blacks is nearly twice that of whites across demographic categories (New York Times, November 9, 2009). The catastrophe that was, and is, Hurricane Katrina is yet another reminder that skin color and poverty remain markers of not only who can thrive, but who can survive (Agathangelou 2010).
Racial issues are very much still with us. And Keith Bardwell, a Louisiana justice of the peace, refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children that the couple might have. Bardwell commented, “I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way.” So, post-racial is a ways off, and resistance and prejudice continue to be daily experiences for interracial couples and persons of color. How couples strategically respond to these acts of racism says a lot about their negotiation style, identities both as individual partners and as a couple system, and what can and cannot be talked about in this intimate context. More on this later.
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Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D., LMFT is a licensed couple and family therapist and clinical supervisor. He is the author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press. Connect with him at academia.edu (click), or via Linkedin at Kyle Killian.
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Agathangelou, A. M. 2010. Bodies of desire, terror and the war in Eurasia: Impolite disruptions of (neo) liberal internationalism, neoconservatism and the ‘new’ imperium. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 38: 693-722.
Blow, C.M. 2009. Black in the age of Obama. New York Times, December 5. Retrieved January 19 2010 at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/05/opinion/05blow.html
Pew Research Center. (2010). Blacks upbeat about Black progress, prospects: A Year After Obama’s Election. Retrieved April 24, 2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1459/year-after-obama-election-black-public-opinion
Pew Research Center. 2010b. Growing number of Americans say Obama is a Muslim. Retrieved August 19, 2010 at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1701/poll-obama-muslim
Pinderhughes, E. (1989). Understanding Race, Ethnicity, and Power. New York: Free Press.
Twine, F. W. & Charles Gallagher. (2008). The future of whiteness: A map of the third wave. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 31, 4-24.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010). Economic News Release, Table 2. Accessed April 27, 2010 at http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkyeng.t02.htm
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