In addition to bringing about peace, changing the image of the United States across the world, and restoring economic greatness for the middle class, Obama's election would rid society of obstacles to racial equality -- at least according to actor-turned-sociologist Alec Baldwin. One of the primary reasons I started this blog was to respond to liberals idealizing Obama, particularly their belief that Obama's success means that contemporary American society has transcended race. It hasn't.
In a recent blog entry on HuffingtonPost, Baldwin welcomes an Obama victory and the social changes it would engender, including the "death" of the Civil Rights Movement and racial inequity:
[A] friend turned to me recently and said, "If Obama is elected, we will have witnessed something truly great in our lifetime." I agree. We will also witness, I would argue, the death of the civil rights movement as we have understood it these past sixty years. The last, great obstacle to meaningful racial equality in America will vanish, and with it, the yoke, real and perceived, of the limitations of the black experience in our country.
Baldwin suffers from a rather acute naivete concerning the state of contemporary race relations. I am certain that the 90% of black voters who will pick Obama on November 4 do not believe their votes will bring about the death of the Civil Rights Movement as "we" know it. Perhaps Baldwin should tell them to read the fine print on their ballots.
Many white liberals, including academics who conduct research on matters concerning social inequality, have expressed opinions like Baldwin's to me for a large part of this year. Their arguments led me to view their support of Obama with a great degree of suspicion. While the mainstream media spent a lot of time reporting that race influenced the votes of white conservative Democrats, who refused to vote for Obama, they neglected to examine the racial attitudes of liberal and leftist Democrats, for whom race also mattered, albeit in much more subtle and in nonracist ways. Many liberals prefer Obama in part because they want to make a positive statement about the status of race in contemporary American society; by voting for a "black man," they can absolve themselves of any lingering racial guilt that only a liberal could experience. Once they elect Obama, they can convince themselves that they have done all they need or can do to do to put race behind "us," which would allow them to feel comfortable in their own wealth and privilege. Obama outperformed Clinton by a healthy margin among wealthier, liberal whites.
But racial inequality will not vanish if Obama wins the election, and believing that his success would end racial injustice provides ammunition to political movements that oppose the implementation and enforcement of antidiscrimination measures. The great changes this country has made with respect to race, gender, sexual orientation, and poverty have only occurred because of social movement activity -- not from symbolic achievements. Many impoverished and racially isolated urban area in the United States have roads or schools named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Despite this, the areas remain places of concentrated poverty and blight. Obama's election -- absent any collective political action and policy reform -- will not change this scenario. I believe that symbols can inspire individuals to action, but symbols cannot do the hard work that produces meaningful change. Only collective and sustained action can engender justice. King used words and symbols to mobilize people against racism. But sit-ins, marches, litigation, parades, and peaceful assembly, not just symbols alone, helped transform American society. Baldwin and others who share his sentiment about race lack an understanding of the way in which social change happens.
One final note: the "beyond race" argument that Baldwin espouses has a long presence in American history. Immediately following the Civil War conservatives in Congress opposed legislation that would provide assistance to the former slaves (including shelter, food, governmental protection from racist mobs, and schools) on the grounds that the war accomplished the complete liberation and equality of blacks. After World War II, when opposition to eugenics and social Darwinism spiked (due in large part to the repudiation of Hitler), states began enacting civil rights legislation prohibiting racial discrimination in employment. Opponents argued that these measures were unnecessary because racism no longer existed. Apparently, it died in the war. And during the 1960s, opponents to federal antidiscrimination policies made the same arguments, resisting the Voting Rights Act, employment discrimination measures, and laws banning racism in places of public accommodation.
Today, the "post-race" argument has gained even more currency, and Obama's electoral success has enlivened its proponents. But polling data show a great racial divide on this issue. While whites tend to agree that society has dismantled racial barriers to advancement, people of color passionately believe that race remains socially relevant. Thus, when Baldwin says "we" will have a new understanding of race if Obama is elected, he is not speaking for most people of color. Perhaps Baldwin should audition for a new movie role. His stint at political blogging has started on very shaky ground.
PS: If this historical analysis interests you, please check out a forthcoming article entitled "Racial Exhaustion." You can read the abstract and download the full draft article here: Racial Exhaustion Link.