Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Black Americans More Optimistic on Issues of Race, Racism

March 10th, 2010 by Ajuan Mance


From The Boston Globe:

Thirty-nine percent of blacks – nearly twice as many as in 2007 – say that the “situation of black people in this country’’ is better than it was five years earlier. That view holds among blacks of all age groups and income levels. Similarly, 56 percent of blacks and nearly two-thirds of whites say the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks has narrowed in the past decade.

— Krissah Thompson, “Blacks Becoming More Optimistic on Race Relations,” The Boston Globe, 01/13/2010

Are African Americans feeling more optimistic about the “situation of black people in this country” because things are better? Curiously enough, African Americans are actually faring worse as a group than we were five years ago, at least in economic terms. But this notion of the current “situation of black people” is not about the day-to-day realities of life for African Americans. Rather, the recently reported finding that nearly twice as many Black people as in 2007 feel that the “situation for black people” has improved is really, truly about nothing more (or less) than a shift in perception.

If anyone were to say that these survey results have nothing to do with the election of the nation’s first Black president, then they would have to have missed entirely the important symbolic meaning of Obama’s election and inauguration. I can still remember my thoughts and emotions on January 20, 2009,  as I watched Barack Obama walk out onto the platform to take the oath of office. I nodded my head in what I now realize was a combination of disbelief and joy, amazement and curiosity. I was watching the impossible take place. Since early childhood I had known that there would never in my lifetime be an African American president. There were certain truths about the world, and this was one of them: the Earth was round, the sky was blue, and there would never be a Black president.

Prior to Obama’s election, my whole understanding of what it was to be Black in America was predicated on the notion that while African Americans could wield great power in the private sector — as CEOs, directors, producers, college presidents, prize-winning and best-selling authors, highly-paid athletes and coaches, entertainers and entertainment executives; and while Black people could even attain a fair amount of power in those public sector positions that were based on merit — through promotion to the highest levels of the military leadership, through nomination and confirmation to federal and regional judgeships, and even through appointment to high-ranking presidential cabinet positions — there would never in my lifetime be an African American president. I firmly believed that the anti-Black racism in this country ran far so deeply that a Black person simply would not be able to draw enough white voters to be a viable candidate.

If you asked me how long it would be before a Black president would be elected, I would easily have said 100 years.

And then, on January 20, 2009, I and virtually all of my Black brothers and sisters in this country watched spellbound as an African American man was sworn in as out 44th president. It was — and this is not an exaggeration — a moment akin to watching aliens land land in front of the Statue of Liberty. The shock and awe of witnessing the previously unthinable take place precipitated a dramatic shift in my thinking about the function of race in the U.S.

The point of this meditation on the meaning of Obama in my life and in the life of other Black people is that — above and beyond his policies, which some Black people support and others oppose, and above and beyond his effectiveness as a leader, which will only reveal itself as time goes by — the simple fact that a Black person could actually win the presidency disproved many of the things that many of us Black folks believed about this country.

Take me as a case in point. Now, I am not so naive as to believe that racism has come to an end; nor do I believe that racism does not continue to have harmful and sometimes fatal effects on African Americans and other people of color. And, even as we celebrate the end of our first year as a nation governed by a man of African descent, we can see the impact of racism on how Obama’s ideas are received, on how he is covered in both the mainstream and alternative media, and on how the left — a traditional power base for the Democratic party —  has, at key moments, failed to support his initiatives. The election of Barack Obama did, however, underscore to me that African Americans can have very, very positive and even extraordinary outcomes, despite the continued existence of racism.

The survey findings reported in The Boston Globe and other news outlets, that more Black people feel better about the status of Black people than they did in 2004, reflect our new understanding, as a people, of how racism works in the 21st century. The fact that a nation can rally around, invest hope in, and entrust its welfare to a Black man does not mean that all of the individuals and institutions in this country — the media, the political opposition, political action groups on the left and the right — have identified and rejected the racism of their own policies and practices. It does mean, though, that racism is not insurmountable and, most importantly, it means that race is a lot more complicated than a simple hatred of Black people. A lot of people who don’t particularly like or feel comfortable with Black people voted for the Black presidential candidate. Somehow, some non-Black voters were able to extricate their personal feelings about African Americans from their political decision to support or not support an African American candidate.

The knowledge of this phenomenon — that in some instances, non-Black people can and do decouple their inherent dislike or distrust of Black people and/or their fear of Blackness from their decisions about their economic and political decisions — is transforming how African Americans feel about their place and their potential in this country. The knowledge that, for example, someone’s boss does not have to like Black people to give a Black employee the promotion that she has rightfully earned is a powerful one, especially given that most Black people believe 1) that white people and other non-Blacks simply don’t like African Americans and 2) that other groups’ dislike of African Americans places an insurmountable obstacle in the way of Black upward mobility.

I am especially interested in how this notion can (and has) impacted Black students on predominately white campuses. Many African American students have considerable trepidation about having to navigate through a system of higher education that they believe to be populated by and — most importantly — run by white people who dislike African Americans and/or believe them to be intellectually inferior. This trepidation turns to anger and fear when Black students encounter classroom situations in which their non-Black  professors make racist comments or fail to address the racist comments of their (mostly) white classmates. Aside from a fundamental anger and hurt at the tolerance for overt racism, such incidents also leave Black students feeling uniquely vulnerable. Many African American students have wondered have wondered how they can I earn a fair grade from someone who either harbors or tolerates racist beliefs.

Alas, the election of President Obama and its illustration that in the voting booth (and most probably in the workplace and in the classroom) non-Black people can decouple their personally held anti-Black feelings from their public role as citizens, employers, employees, teachers, and student provides a glimmer of hope for such circumstances. A white professor who does not believe that Black people are as intelligent as non-Black groups, will probably still give a Black student in her class the grade he has earned. The student’s success in the class is, thankfully enough, not dependent on the personal transformation of that professor’s own racist beliefs.

This may seem like a very mixed blessing; anti-Black prejudice is still rampant, but  Black people perceive its effects as much less debilitating. When compared with Black people’s traditional understanding of racism as something that would have to be completely eliminated before African Americans could achieve true political, social, and economic power and self-determination the realities that Barack Obama’s election reveal about race feel an awful lot like liberation.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Barack Obama, Black History, Current Events, Higher Education, race

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