To understand the politics of race and who is and is not considered fully American in today’s politics and society, it is important to understand the way in which President Obama was perceived as something non-American during his time in office. The President was constantly portrayed as not quite American, and the “birther” conspiracy summed up people’s unwillingness to see him as an equal American. The conspiracy centered on a belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not a citizen and not eligible to be president.
David Sears and Michael Tesler were able to test theories of social response to President Obama’s otherness and analyze the data in their book Obama’s Race. The authors find that people who had less favorable views of black people and less favorable views of Muslims were more likely to support the birther conspiracy and were less likely to favor Candidate Obama in 2008.
Sears and Tesler wrote, “We expected most respondents to say Obama was born in the United States, even those who relied most heavily on Fox News. We were surprised, however, to find that only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American-born.” The authors also write, “It looks as if much of the driving force behind the dogged unwillingness of so many to acknowledge that Obama was born in the United States is not just simple partisan opposition to a Democratic president but a general ethnocentric suspicion of an African American president who is also perceived as distinctly ‘other’.”
It is important to note that simply watching Fox News cannot explain the reason why so many people felt that President Obama was an outsider and was possibly not born in the United States. From the data presented by Sears and Tesler, we cannot say that Fox News changed people’s beliefs, or whether people who already harbored feelings of racial resentment watched Fox News to reaffirm their beliefs.
Ultimately, what the research I believe shows us, is that we must be more considerate when we think about what makes someone American. Different groups across this country (across generations, racial groups, education groups, and groups defined by socioeconomic status) will have to accept the fact that American’s are changing demographically, with the nation becoming less white. This means that those groups who have dominated through their whiteness, even if the domination was unconscious or hidden, will have to shift who they understand themselves to be. This puts race in a pivotal role as we decide who will be American moving forward, whether the old order will cary the day, or if we are going to change who we allow to be American and represent American values.
How we think about racism in the United States today is a little out of touch with the actual realities and experiences of racial minorities in our country. Much like the Supreme Court’s approach to corruption (show us demonstrable quid pro quo corruption or it didn’t happen) most people in the United States only see racism in overt statements and demonstrable actions. These views however, miss a large part of how racism actually manifests in people’s lives. In their book Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears present a view of symbolic racism that is very descriptive of the current state of racism and general thought toward black people in particular.
“Symbolic racism has been described as a coherent belief system reflecting four specific themes: (1) blacks no longer face much discrimination, (2) their disadvantage mainly reflects their poor work ethic, (3) they are demanding too much too fast, and (4) they have gotten more than they deserve (Henry and Sears 2002; Sears and Henry 2005).”
I kept the quotes in the text above to again demonstrate that the ideas presented by Sears and Tesler are evidence based. Real data was collected and analyzed to reach the findings presented by the authors. This section regarding symbolic racism is not simply the authors subjective thoughts and point of view, it is backed by real research involving real people.
In my life I have seen all four aspects of symbolic racism in action, used as an excuse for racially disparate outcomes of society and used to justify some people’s success dismiss other people’s failures. Each point is easy to disprove on a case by case basis, but when it comes to group identity and how we view black people in a larger setting, we become unable to make our way beyond the arguments presented by symbolic racism.
The events in Charlottesville, VA demonstrate the fact that black people still face discrimination and that many people still harbor beliefs that white people are somehow better than blacks. I have written about housing policies from the 50s and 60s and how they prevented wealth building and limited black people to communities of deep poverty, and how major hurricanes like Katrina have had disparate impacts on black people living in environmentally risky areas. Sears and Tesler in Obama’s Race spend a lot of time reviewing responses to President Obama’s election and demonstrate ways in which white voters changed their views toward racism to more negative views of what was provided to black people and what black people were asking for in terms of equality. The Blue Lives Matter movement which originated as a type of backlash to Black Lives Matter is a modern example of white people pushing back against black people’s demands for greater justice. Each of the situations above build on one of the four views of symbolic racism presented by Tesler and Sears.
The important thing to recognize is not that symbolic racism permeates everything and operates (until the election of President Trump) just under the surface of American Culture. The important thing to recognize is that symbolic racism does not feel like racism. Instead, it feels like a justification of one’s own achievement and position. Symbolic racism is a excuse for the lifestyle, identity, and adoption of white cultural values with roots dating back to the Protestant founding of our country. We believe that we control our own destiny’s and that our hard work will pay off in the end. Our obstacles and situations do not matter, because we each have the faculties to achieve material and financial success if we only try. The success of many black people, from President Obama’s election to famous sports figures and movie stars, runs alongside symbolic racism as evidence that black people who are failures today (as defined by white wealth goals) are simply not doing enough to make it in this world. In the end, symbolic racism is hard to counter because it is actually not about black people or minorities, it is about the white identify that is shielded and protected from social responsibility for the economic and cultural suppression of others in our nation.