Duke Magazine


Paula D. McClain

The mere fact that Barack Obama, a black man of mixed race, was elected President is a statement of how far the U.S. has come from its sin of slavery and the stain of racism. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that this milestone, as magnificent and wonderful as it is, signals the end of issues of race or racism in the U.S.

President Obama won 52.9 percent of the vote and 365 electoral votes, a significant victory. Yet, we need to get behind those—and other—numbers to get a true sense of whether we have progressed to the point that we can throw up our hands and shout, "Hallelujah!"

Democratic candidates have consistently failed to receive the majority of the white vote. Obama was no different. The majority of whites nationally who voted, voted for John McCain (55 percent to 43 percent). Obama's proportion of the white vote, however, was two percentage points higher than the white vote for John Kerry (41 percent), so progress was made. Moreover, in some states—for example, California, Connecticut, and other traditionally Democratic states—a majority of whites did vote for Obama. He was also able to pull a simple majority of white voters in traditionally Republican states, such as Iowa and Colorado.

In addition, although Obama lost the majority of white voters, he did carry the majority of white voters (54 percent) in a particular demographic category: whites between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. This is significant, as it might signal that younger whites—most of whom were raised in an era of integration and many of whom have a racially diverse set of friends—were more likely to support a black man for President than were other cohorts of whites. This suggests that the future of race relations in the U.S. is slated for continued improvement over time.

Obama's presidency may help to improve race relations on another level, as well. That the visual face of the U.S., domestically and internationally, is now a black face will make the presence of blacks and other individuals of color in certain occupations, leadership roles, and other aspects of social and political life more natural and commonplace.

I remain cautious, however, in any broad predictions about the state of race relations in twenty-five years because so many areas of structural inequality in the U.S. have existed for so long. For example, data from the American Housing Survey, conducted annually by the Census Bureau, indicate that blacks with similar income and credit scores to whites are charged higher interest rates on mortgage loans and are more likely to be pushed to the subprime mortgage market than are similarly situated whites. Given the recent collapse of the subprime market, the disparity in homeownership between whites (75.1 percent own homes) and blacks (47.4 percent own homes) will be even greater.

Disparities in the area of education are also startling. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that 72 percent of white students who graduate from high school are "college ready," compared with only 37 percent of black high-school graduates. Moreover, the racial composition of a school is highly correlated with the number of advanced placement (AP) courses offered and who occupies seats in these classes. Blacks and Latinos enroll in AP courses at half the rate of white students.

In the area of health, blacks have consistently had higher infant-mortality rates (14 per 1,000) compared with whites (6 per 1,000). This gap has continued for decades in a country with what some say is the best health-care system in the world. Research on toxic-waste sites shows that these sites are more likely to be located in areas with high concentrations of nonwhite populations and that 56 percent of those living within 1.5 miles of a toxic-waste site are nonwhite.

Even this abbreviated list of challenges and concerns offers strong evidence that disparities are broad and deep. President Obama, if reelected in 2012, will have a total of only eight years to reverse structural inequalities developed over a far longer period of time. Even if he devotes all his attention and all the nation's resources to addressing these inequities, which is not possible, much would remain to be done after he leaves office. And as the nation becomes increasingly multiracial over the next twenty-five years, the imperative to confront these inequities will be even more important if the nation is to continue moving forward.

We must not be lulled into turning a blind eye to all that remains to be done. President Obama's election was one important milestone on the long, steady march toward equality, but we still have miles to go.

Can We All Get Along? Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics

Bookmark and Share