Barack Obama’s presidency was hailed as a milestone, yet the election of the first African American president did not mean that the United States had transcended its “original sin” of racism, several experts agreed at a panel on race, religion, and American identity.
Americans may place too much faith in the presidency, said Ibram Kendi, a professor at American University.
“Americans put faith in a racial messiah, whether they’re positioning Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Harriet Tubman. We like to position . . . these grand historical subjects as the people who . . . were able to move the country forward,” Kendi said. “That’s just not how history has actually happened.”
The power of the presidency “collided with those notions of a racial messiah and anointed Obama as though he was going to save us and save the world from racism,” Kendi added. Instead, the election emboldened pent-up racist feelings that “ultimately blasted onto our front lawns and even into cities like Charlottesville.”
Yet Obama’s victory inspired young voters whatever their race or religion, observed David Saperstein. The former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom agreed, however, that Obama’s presidency was no panacea for racism. “What he showed vividly was we’re not in the post-racial society that many people after the election were talking about, and now we have to come to grips with that.”
Larycia Hawkins’s grandmother and great aunt marched on Washington, D.C., fearful that they might not make it back home, she recalled. Hawkins is a UVA faculty member in the departments of politics and religious studies. She recalled her personal and professional thoughts when Obama won—her memories of her forebears’ struggles yet also the sour faces of her suburban neighbors the day after the election. The sight of those sour white faces tempered her enthusiasm.
“As a political scientist I find it odd, as someone who studies race and religion . . . that I’d never been asked previously about race relations during the two Bush administrations or the Clinton administration,” she said. Few people in the “upper echelons of the academy” asked about the racial consequences of the presidency of a white man. I think it’s important to shift our questioning, like how Nixon’s benign neglect affected race relations.” She noted that the administration of the first black president also collided with police killings of unarmed black people—Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and others.
The Obama presidency was downright painful for Jason Johnson, a professor at Morgan State University. Within a year of Obama’s election, Johnson became emotionally exhausted simply watching Obama, on the national stage, suffer the same racist micro-aggressions and active aggressions that every black professional deals with in their personal lives. “And then we got to see Obama do it.”
Christianity has historically “perpetuated colonialism and capitalism,” Hawkins said. “It always comes back to this narrative of underlying values, often erroneously termed Judeo-Christian.”
Anti-Semitic crimes and hate crimes have doubled since 2015, Saperstein said, citing government and/or Anti-Defamation League statistics. “This is a very dangerous time here, but, in the end, no group is going to be safe until we deal with racism. It is the original sin. It remains the great form of discrimination and persecution in this country.”
Racism is obvious and everywhere, Kendi noted.
“I’d probably say the singular form of racism in this country exists within health care, health disparities for people who, because they’re black, die every year, dying because black people are 25 percent more likely to die of cancer or this or that,” he said. “That’s the most serious form of racism.”
Johnson said that questions about potential reparations for slavery have been thoroughly studied, but practically speaking, it’s unlikely to happen. “No black person thinks white America is going to take any sort of collective action because of their behavior,” Johnson said. “If you ask them if they’re entitled to some kind of recompense, they’re going to say yes.”
We need to think of reparations as a form of justice, according to Hawkins. “It’s not punishment or vengeance.”
Saperstein said he believes reparations are possible “if we have the moral vision to do it.”