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Obama's success not a sign U.S. has overcome race issue, historian says


Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor

David Roediger
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
A new book by Illinois historian David Roediger addresses issues of race in the U.S. Roediger writes, "The U.S. has never been without (race)." He believes the election of a black president would not signal the arrival of a "post-racial" America.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Many have speculated that the election of a black president would signal the arrival of a “post-racial” America, a country moving past its problems of race.

But we’ve been here before, says University of Illinois historian David Roediger, the author of several books about race in U.S. history, including one published this month. Many previous events and forces have likewise promised and failed to resolve issues of race in the U.S.

Race continues as an issue, Roediger says, not because of any failure to eliminate bigotry or racism among individuals. Rather, it continues because of the continuing “systematic reproduction of inequality” that began in early colonial days of the 1600s, when the idea of race was essentially invented, he said.

“The world got along without race for the overwhelming majority of its history,” Roediger writes in his new book “How Race Survived U.S. History: From Settlement and Slavery to the Obama Phenomenon” (Verso). “The U.S. has never been without it.”

“In its inception and then at key junctures past that, racism grew out of big social and economic processes,” Roediger said, most importantly in the development of a slave labor system and in justifying the taking of land from native peoples.

“The idea of who gets what economically and who’s entitled to what kinds of privileges are tied up with race right at the creation,” he said.

There was a sense that the colonies and then later the United States “ought to be a good place for white men, which makes it, I think, so hard to overcome racism within a U.S. framework," said Roediger, the Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History at Illinois. "There’s this idea that there ought to be a payoff for being white.”

Circumstances change throughout U.S. history, he said, “but beneath it is this kind of expectation that it’s a white man’s country in certain ways and that it would be an odd thing if it weren’t.”

In his book, Roediger takes the reader through various events and periods that seemingly should have brought an end to race but didn’t – from the Declaration of Independence, to the end of slavery, to a free labor market, to modern liberalism and the civil rights movement.

Despite progress in some areas, severe economic inequalities have continued and been perpetuated, often through government policy, Roediger said. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, federal programs were structured to subsidize housing for whites moving to suburbs, but not for blacks and Latinos, he said. When those same groups sought housing in recent years through subprime mortgages, they became the disproportionate victims of the crisis that followed, he said.

As a result of these and other structural inequalities, whites average eight or nine times the wealth of blacks, Roediger said. That’s actually greater than 50 years ago, when the ratio was seven or eight to one in favor of whites, a ratio that had not changed for a hundred years, he said.

Similarly, Roediger said that the rate of incarceration for black males is seven times that of white males. The overwhelming number of those incarcerations are for drug crimes, which are committed at about the same rate by blacks and whites, he said.

“It’s that kind of systematic reproduction of inequality that makes people think in terms of race, even if we take them at their word that they’re trying not to and that they think they’re color blind,” Roediger said. “As long as you live in that kind of unequal society, it’s going to be hard to think outside of those boxes.”

The boxes, in fact, were there to see in the process of the primary campaign and in the news coverage of it, Roediger said. An unexpected Obama win might bring talk of a “post-racial” America, “and then every time anything happened, the discussion would turn straight back to race,” he said.

“On the one hand, we have evidence that racism is changing, but the same election process produces all this evidence that race is still totally what people grab onto as a way to explain society.”

Roediger thinks Barack Obama is likely to win, but without a mandate to address issues of racial inequality or injustice. A black candidate who could campaign on those issues and win would mark the true “crossing of a threshold” on race, he said.

"If you accept the idea that racism is a personal failing, his election will show that a lot of people have overcome that personal failing, and I wouldn’t dismiss that. I think it is an important fact about the United States,” Roediger said. “But it’s not a fact that changes the fact of wholesale inequality or wholesale incarceration of black and brown people. Those won’t change as a result of the election."