In his final address to the nation, President Obama outlined the most imminent threats to our democracy – one of which he described as “as old as our nation itself.” He admonished the dream of a post-racial America many envisioned after his election as unrealistic. According to him, the threat of “race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” However, more accurately stated, he should have said racism remains a potent and often divisive force in our nation, but he didn’t. Why?
Racism is a taboo word in the public sphere. Terms like race and race relations have become euphemistic ways to talk about racism. This linguistic elision has made it so people believe talking about race is difficult and that discussing the socially constructed identifiers ascribed to different groups of people is cringe worthy and uncomfortable. In reality, talking about race is easy. When taken to be a socially constructed system of identification based on factors such as physical traits and ancestry, race is not that big of a deal. Through that lens, race is just something we all have, like a favorite sports team, or something we can all relate to, like being from a certain state.
By now you may be shaking your head and thinking to yourself that talking about being an Eagles fan or from Oklahoma is certainly a lot easier than talking about being black in America and you’re right. It is. That is because when talking about being black in America the conversation that follows is not simply about race. The conversation is also about racism. Racism is like race’s evil twin brother that lurks in the shadows, seeps through the cracks, and permeates nearly every facet of American society. Racism involves the unequal distribution of resources, unbalanced power dynamics, and unfettered privilege afforded to some based upon the system of identification that is race. While the two are closely related they are not the same but since they are so interconnected conversations that involve racism are often mistaken for conversations that are just about race.
President Obama engaged in the sort of rhetorical fodder that neglects to call racism by its name. On such a basic level he failed to get real about the reality of race and racism in America. To refer to race as a potent, divisive force in society and to not speak the word racism except when qualified by the word reverse, Obama inadvertently contributed to the very threat he warned against.