Burning Question for Glenn McNair, Associate Professor of History
With the election of Obama, are we living in post-race America?
On January 20, 2013 or 2017, Barack Obama will pass the presidential torch to the forty-fifth president of the United States. That next president may be an African American, Latina, Asian American, or, perhaps, Caucasian.
The conversation about race in this country has changed, and we asked Glenn McNair, associate professor of history with expertise in African-American political and intellectual culture, to discuss racial politics and policies in the age of Obama. McNair has a doctorate from Emory University. He began his career as a cop in Savannah, Georgia, and, along the way, hosted a talk-radio show and became a US Treasury Department special agent.
Bulletin: Does Obama owe more of a debt to Jesse Jackson or to Colin Powell?
McNair: He owes them both but in different ways. It's true that in terms of advancing ideas like voter registration and putting out there the idea of a black guy who could be a serious candidate and could be president, he owes Jackson and that generation. They fought for voting rights and expanded the black electorate and kept the feet of the nation to the fire.
At the same time, if Obama pursued a Jackson-type candidacy, one explicitly based on race and pursuing racial justice, he would not be president right now. For that, he owes Powell as the kind of black leader that the majority of Americans can get behind. Powell said that when white Americans see him, they have a picture in their head and that's of a general. Trumpets start to blare and medals start to gleam. Whites respond to that image. He had this whole other persona and his own take on things. He's black but he's not racially aggrieved.
Obama has a similar sort of non-racial appeal. He has that quintessential American story—the son of immigrants, the son of Africa, white, black. He went to the Ivy League, but he was raised by a single mom. When you see Obama, many people can see whatever it is they want to see in him, and that's been the secret to his success. In Obama's mind, you can be proud of your race, but that's not really what you're all about.
Obama is right at the cusp of all of the things that have come before him. As a nation, we're at a critical moment of racial change. Everything is unfolding so that each generation is a little more tolerant than the generation before it. When you were a kid, the world we see today would have been unimaginable. A black guy is president? Are you serious? Black people can't even vote.
Bulletin: Is Obama a product or an agent of change?
McNair: He's clearly a product of changes in the country that surprised a lot of people. I think we've advanced as a nation, certainly on matters of race in the political context, much farther, much faster than I think most commentators expected.
Much of the struggle for blacks has been to be recognized as full citizens of the body politic. You had a century of political disenfranchisement in various ways. So to arrive at the moment when the president of the United States is black-that's huge for us as a nation.
I don't think you're ever going to see an Obama save-the-black-inner-city campaign or anything like that. His position from the start has been that America has certain socioeconomic conditions that disadvantage certain people across the spectrum. If we can improve those things, the lives of all people will be improved. That represents a new politics for most black politicians. We're seeing the last days of the Jackson style of politics, one of racial grievance, because it's gone as far as it can go.
Bulletin: What's the life span of affirmative action?
McNair: It's well on its way out. You just cannot defend giving advantages to kids who are not disadvantaged in any particular way. It gets harder and harder to explain why the kids of doctors and lawyers and politicians are getting the advantages that should go to working-class kids of whatever background. If our goal is to ultimately get beyond race to a society where people are judged for their abilities and for who they are, you've got to start doing it at some point. Others, including Obama, have advocated a more class-based approach to these kinds of things.
We're also getting generations of black kids who are tired of being stigmatized, of having their accomplishments questioned. They are tired of the assumption that somehow they are there for the education of other people. 'We've got the minority kids so white kids can learn about diversity.' Who wants to be that? Their view is, 'Sorry. I'm here for the same reasons that you are. I'm a student. I'm not a representative of the race.'
Bulletin: Does the US have a biracial future?
McNair: If you mean whether we'll ever be this kind of amorphous blend, where the races are indistinguishable, probably not. But I can envision a society where whatever you look like is fine, where we're not going to make a huge deal out of it. We're seeing that. I remain very optimistic about the future.