WHO WE BE PREVIEW : Post-Racial Or Post-Hope? :: Race In The Obama Era

Published in Ilustríssima
Folha De São Paulo
October 4, 2010

+ Download the PDF (in Portuguese)

This piece was commissioned by Folha De São Paulo‘s Sunday magazine, Ilustríssima at the midpoint of Obama’s first term. It meant to capture the racial moment in the U.S. for Brazilian audiences, but it also reveals some of the themes and topics of Who We Be: The Colorization of America, due out on St. Martin’s Press in late 2011.

For most of 2008, the most arresting image in America was a screen print by the street artist Shepard Fairey that appeared on posters, stickers, and clothing from sea to shining sea. The image was of a Black and white man rendered in red, white, and blue. The man was named Barack Obama and the four-letter word below his image was HOPE.

Obama was, of course, the presidential candidate who had come from the far geographic and cultural edge of the United States, its Pacific border in Hawai’i, to secure the Democratic Party nomination. He ran on a platform of mending a divided country. In a speech in March called “A More Perfect Union”, he offered his own biracial heritage—the unity of Black and white histories in his own body—as a symbol of reconciliation.

That address, now popularly known as “the race speech”, was in some ways as historic as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial almost 45 years earlier. “The complexities of race that we’ve never really worked through”, Obama said, remained “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” If Americans could move forward on race, he seemed to say, they could move forward on anything.

From the height of the civil rights movement through the Cold War into a new era of globalization, the United States has trumpeted the value of inclusion as central to its version of democracy. Yet any student of U.S. history knows that the reality of race has belied the nation’s image of itself. Race has driven four hundred years of civil and cultural schisms, and has brought the nation to the brink of dissolution. Race, another four-letter word, is still the most troubled national divide.

So when Barack Obama’s candidacy began to gather steam in 2008, some pundits wrote that it was a sign the rancor over race in America was finally dissipating. Obama dismissed the notion in his “race speech”, saying, “I have never been so naive as to believe we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy.” Yet his triumph was epochal. In the glow of the historic victory of a Black biracial president, many declared that the U.S. had entered a “post-racial” era.

But in the summer of 2009, when, in a press conference, Obama said white police who had harassed the famous African American scholar Henry Louis Gates in a local incident had “acted stupidly”, he caused a national uproar. Conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck called Obama a “racist” who had a “deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” More recently the Obama administration fired African American official Shirley Sherrod after a conservative white blogger accused her of being anti-white in a speech to the NAACP. Sherrod—whose father had been killed by white racists—was in fact speaking candidly of how she had overcome her own prejudices against whites, and the administration hastily tried to rehire her.

During the hot summer months, opposition to Obama’s proposals have been mobilized by thinly veiled racial images. Last year some far-right Tea Party members protested the president’s health care reform package with picket signs depicting him as a witch doctor. Others circulated lies that he was Muslim or that he was not born an American citizen, stories that crystallized their beliefs in Obama’s inextricable foreignness. This year Beck drew thousands of Tea Party supporters to the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” to celebrate “the end of darkness.” Halfway through Obama’s first term, flare-ups over race have reached a velocity and pitch unseen since the so-called “culture wars” of the 1980s and early 1990s.

But at the same time, there has never been a time in history when non-white people have been more visible. With Obama and his beautiful young family as the apotheosis, images in the U.S. media appear more loudly and proudly multiracial than ever. Our visual culture has become colorized, to coin a phrase.

One example is the notoriously exclusive high art-world. In the late 1960s artists of color mounted protests against the museums and galleries who refused to show their works. During the 1990s some artists of color began to break into the closed art-world, but not without great controversy. The 1993 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art featured the most diverse representation of women artists and artists of color up to that time. Many, but not all, of the artists revealed concerns over race, gender, and sexuality. The Biennial became a major ideological battleground of the culture wars, and remains one of the most critically despised shows of the last half-century.

But now a reassessment of that moment of multiculturalism is underway. The curator Thelma Golden and the artist Glenn Ligon half-jokingly coined the term “post-black” in the mid-1990s as a way to describe a new generation of post-multiculturalist artists of color. “Post-black is the new black,” Golden famously wrote. Both have become art-world superstars, as have others of their generation, including Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu, Mark Bradford, and Gary Simmons.

The most successful ad campaign this year starred Isaiah Mustafa, a strikingly handsome Black man, in a set of commercials for Old Spice shower body wash called “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” Studies had shown that women made 70% of all body wash purchases, so Mustafa, acting as “The Old Spice Guy”, began his ads with a hearty “Hello ladies!” He pattered humorously in the deep baritone of a Shakespearean actor about how attractive he was. He began the ad wearing only a towel and—through set changes that took him quickly from the bathroom to a yacht to a white horse—he remained half-naked.

The ad went stupendously viral. Its runaway internet popularity caused the corporate giant Proctor & Gamble to commission 185 more video clips featuring The Old Spice Guy responding directly to tweets, posts, and emails from fans. The videos garnered literally hundreds of milllions of YouTube views. In all of them Mustafa was shirtless.

Katie Abrahamson, a spokesperson for Wieden+Kennedy, the agency that produced the ads, denied that Mustafa was cast based on his race. “The truth of the matter is, Isaiah was one of hundreds who auditioned for the spot in a standard casting-call and was simply the best performance and overall best fit for the creative idea—it had nothing to do with the color of his skin,” she said. “The challenge was finding someone who would appeal to both genders.”

But could an attractive white man standing half-naked in a bathroom blessed with equal comic gifts have conjured as much attention? The witty, de-Ebonicized, confident (but far from threateningly confident) Old Spice Guy recalled no one so much as Obama himself, who once when the paparazzi captured him on a beach in Hawai’i, appeared shirtless on a news tabloid cover above the headline: “FIT FOR OFFICE: Buff Bam is Hawaii hunk.”

Advertising met politics when, in one of the follow-up videos, the Old Spice Guy answered a question from the television host and former Democratic advisor George Stephanopoulos. How, Stephanopoulos wondered, could President Obama stop losing women voters? The Old Spice Guy advised Obama to “henceforth only be seen in a towel” and to begin his State of the Union addresses with “Hello ladies!” If the going got tough, just remind them of “his presidential ab-boards.”

One of American history’s most unforgettable images is the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a Black boy brutally tortured and murdered in 1955 by two white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white girl. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral—”I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby”, she said—and the photographs of Till shocked the country and sparked the nascent civil rights movement. Back then an image of a shirtless Black man might have caused race riots.

Twenty-five years ago, Robert Mapplethorpe’s stylized photographs of nude Black men scandalized the art world and catalyzed a conservative backlash against government funding of the arts. (Ligon actually explored the questions raised by Mapplethorpe’s photos in his work for the 1993 Whitney Biennial.) Subsequent debates and political fights over multiculturalism dominated the era of “the culture wars.”

But then the hip-hop movement—with its images of defiant Black and Latino youths—redefined multicultural cool, helping remake the American culture industry for a young browning world. Hip-hop helped to colorize the culture from bottom to top. Now the image of a smart, confident, handsome Black man epitomizes sexy, the cutting-edge of the cultural mainstream.

These changes have created unprecedented opportunities for some people of color. “The reality is, I guess as the reality of hip-hop is now, that most of the people that purchase my work are not African American,” admits Ligon, with a barely perceptible hint of ambivalence. The history of U.S. visual culture, like the history of American music, can be written as a history of desegregation. So why is the U.S. also seeing a renewed rancor over race?

The U.S. population is undergoing a paradigm shift. Because of immigration, non-whites now outnumber whites in 4 of the 50 states. Americans under the age of 18 will become majority non-white in about a decade, and the entire country will follow by the mid-century. Given their cultural influence it longer makes sense to refer to non-whites as “minorities.” Yet the most politically influential American demographic, the post-World War II generation known as the Baby Boom, is over 75% white. Demographer William Frey calls this phenomenon “the cultural generation gap.”

In the 2008 presidential election, race and generation came together as never before. Obama actually lost the white vote and voters over the age of 65 and split the Baby Boomer vote, but won the presidency by forging a new cultural majority. More than two-thirds of voters under 30, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, and an astounding 96% of African Americans voted for him. He also won a decisive margin among voters between 30 and 44, gay voters, and women voters.

To his credit, Obama’s opponent, John McCain, disdained the kind of racialized attacks that have become standard in American politics. But the U.S. has hardly escaped its long history of exploiting race to amplify white anxieties. Since the civil rights consensus of the 1960s, race has been the recurring “wedge issue” that overwhelms reasoned discussion.

In 1968 Richard Nixon’s presidential victory gave birth to the infamous “Southern strategy”—playing on racial fears to realign white Democrats as Republicans. Ronald Reagan summoned images of non-white welfare cheats and youth gangsters to win support for the gutting of social programs and the expansion of prisons. Even Bill Clinton had his “Sister Souljah” moment, excoriating the rapper for her allegedly anti-white comments.

This election season has seen the vicious return of the race wedge, and the triumph of myths over facts. In Arizona, the governor built support for a drastic anti-immigration bill with the fictional image of bodies of beheaded innocents left in the desert by criminals of Latino descent. In New York City, conservatives attacked a proposed moderate Muslim cultural center by disingenuously linking it to the 9/11 attacks and Arab extremism. In Texas, the State Board of Education voted to change the history textbooks for its 5 million students, downplaying the nation’s history of slavery and emphasizing a “biblical worldview”, in one board member’s words, of the U.S. “as a nation chosen by God to be a light set on a hill to serve as a beacon of hope and Christian charity to a lost and dying world.”

In many ways, four decades of civil rights rollbacks have left a nation more divided along racial lines. A prison boom tripled the number of incarcerated over the past quarter century to 2 million, the largest population behind bars in the world. Nearly 70% of prisoners are non-white. In the current economic recession, poverty rates for Latinos and Asians have soared. Less examined, but most troubling to many experts, are the rising rates of resegregation in housing and schooling. John A. Powell of the Kirwan Institute For The Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University warns that these if these trends are not stopped, they could rip apart the social fabric in the coming decades.

Here is the paradox of the “post-racial era”: while our images show an optimistic nation moving toward cultural desegregation and racial equality, our politics reflect deep pessimism and our social indexes reveal increasing social resegregation and racial inequality. The hip-hop band The Roots call our time the “post-hope era.”

“We know this is a country that’s increasingly becoming more diverse,” says Cornell Belcher, a political pollster for Obama. “Marketers get it. People selling sneakers get it. People selling Coca-Cola get it. But from a political standpoint, we haven’t really got it.”

Belcher notes that Americans of all backgrounds tend to share certain nationally defining values: freedom, fairness, opportunity, equality. “However, this is the problem with equality,” he says. “In certain groups, it triggers a conversation that goes like this: ‘They’re trying to get equality, which means I’m losing something. You have to be very careful about triggering this fear of ‘us vs. them.'”

When Obama filled out the decennial census form for this year and checked his racial background for “Black or African American”, he was criticized for ignoring his white ancestry. But some believe his resistance to speaking as openly about race as he did when he was a candidate have resulted in “colorblind” policies that are leaving communities of color further disenfranchised.

“What the Obama administration has learned is if you talk about race you lose. But what is the positive agenda for a multiracial future?” asks Powell. “Is it Arizona? Is it Texas?”

In 2011 another image—one unlikely to turn as viral as the HOPE poster or the Old Spice commercials, but just as intriguing—may find its way into the center of a national discussion. Glenn Ligon’s mid-career retrospective, opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art next year, will likely feature his neon light sculpture of the word AMERICA. He has painted the front surfaces of the letters black so that the light—which fluctuates slowly in intensity—can only be thrown backward. Now that Obama is president, Ligon jokes that critics will probably read this last piece too literally. “Black America,” he groans, “blah blah blah.”

But Ligon says he created these works before Obama was elected, when he read of a child in Afghanistan standing amidst the ruins of his home calling on America to live up to its democratic ideals. The other inspiration, he says, was Charles Dickens’s famous opening line to “A Tale Of Two Cities”, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

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