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Political Physics – Has Obama Caused Black America to Lose Touch with Reality?


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

A friend of mine, Katrina, tagged me in a post on Facebook about a recent study entitled, “A Year After Obama’s Election Blacks Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects,” by the Pew Research Center.  Pew conducted a national survey of 2,884 adults, including 812 African Americans, via telephone between October 28th and November 30th.

According to the overview of the study, “Despite the bad economy, blacks’ assessments about the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter century…Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president appears to be the spur for this sharp rise in optimism among African Americans. It may also be reflected in an upbeat set of black views on a range of other matters, including race relations, local community satisfaction and expectations for future black progress.  In each of these realms, the perceptions of blacks have changed for the better over the past two years, despite a deep recession and jobless recovery that have hit blacks especially hard.”

Even in the midst of a recession, “nearly twice as many blacks now (39%) as in 2007 (20%) say that the ‘situation of black people in this country’ is better than it was five years earlier [and] more than half (53%) say that life for blacks in the future will be better than it is now, while just 10% say it will be worse. In 2007, 44% said things would be better for blacks in the future, while 21% said they would be worse.”

My best friend Ernessa, also tagged in the post, commented that she had not read the study yet, “but yes, I’m pretty optimistic about black progress as well. It feels like my larger family is better off financially and emotionally than when we were kids. And it also feels like we have way more opportunities. Also, when you look at our past, we have nowhere to go but up. I agree that there hasn’t been enough change yet, but compared to what my life would have been like had I been born in the generation prior; I think we’re growing as a race by leaps and bounds. And I’m beyond gleeful that more than a “talented tenth” of black folks are representing for progress and intelligence.”

And according to NPR’s Marketplace “recent census data “Research suggests African-Americans have not made big economic strides since the civil rights era of the ’60s and ’70s. Disparities in average income and average net worth with whites remain significant.”

So as an African American woman I should be jumping for joy right?  Unfortunately, I find this data more worrisome than exciting for two reasons.

(1)  It is very dangerous when perception veers too far away from reality; and

(2)  A false sense of betterment alleviates the need for whites to identify and own white privilege.

The fact is disparities between White and Black America do exist.  Moreover, on several fronts those disparities are not closing and in some cases, they are widening.  According to “The State of Black America 2004: The Complexity of Black Progress,” by the National Urban League “the 2009 Equality Index stands at 71.1% compared to a revised 2008 index of 71.5%.  Relative to 2008, the change in this year’s overall index was marginal, indicating a general continuation of the status quo.”

In addition, the National Urban League study found that “the average net worth of African-American families is just over $6,000.  Black Americans are less likely than White Americans to own homes, don’t earn as much as Whites, don’t live as long, and don’t do as well in school [and] the biggest differences, the report found, were in the areas of home ownership and economic parity, with Black earning power about 73 percent that of Whites.”

I think Mark Morial, CEO of the National Urban League said it best, “There is the perception that the playing field has leveled, that the gaps have been closed, that there’s no longer a problem in America. That complacency, I think, exists in many quarters, even in the African-American community in some quarters, because we have a generation, many of us, who were the beneficiaries of the work of many, many others in opening doors. And we can’t forget while there are individual success stories and many things to be proud of, there is a lot of work to do.”

I mean do not get me wrong; I am going to tell my son that he can be anything that he wants to be.  But I also plan to prepare him, as much as I can, for the realities of the world.

And then there is the issue of white privilege.

White privilege, as defined in critical race theory, is a set of advantages that are believed to be enjoyed by white people beyond those commonly experienced by people of color in the same social, political, or economic spaces,” and there is a strong link between white privilege and the disparities mentioned above.  So when White America points to President Obama as the symbol of a post-racial America I get worried.  And when African Americans perceive an improved America and that perception is too far away of the reality I get even more worried.

In a study of her colleagues by Cheryl R. Kaiser at the University of Washington found that “Obama’s election was associated with (a) greater perceptions that anyone, regardless of life circumstances, can achieve success in the U.S. through hard work, (b) decreased perception that the U.S. has a long way to go to achieve racial equality, (c) less support for policies that address racial inequality such as affirmative action, desegregation programs that promote diversity in public schools, business efforts to promote diversity in the workplace and equal access to healthcare for minorities.”

Is there such a thing as too much optimism?  And can optimism even be a bad thing?  I am not sure.  But I do fear that the successful election of our first African American (actually biracial but we know America loves its one drop rule) President can overshadow some real issues of inequity that are still very prevalent in this country.