article

01.20.10

A Post-Racial Disappointment

Of all the hopes pinned to President Obama, only one has been fulfilled: a post-racial presidency. John McWhorter on Obama’s tough year.

With the economy in free fall, rampant unemployment, and the most polarized and sclerotic Congress in the history of our republic, it’s unclear to me who could imagine that after a year, Barack Obama could possibly look as magical as he did a year ago today, as the Bushes flew back to Texas and we medicated ourselves with the idea that Yes, He Could turn the nation around with all deliberate speed. What strikes me most is not that Obama has turned out to be human, but the extent to which the human that America perceives is—yes—“post-racial.”

To wit, there is nothing “black” about an obsession with splitting differences rather than taking brash stands, about an excessively gingerly approach to the banks, or even about relying on a teleprompter. If three years from now Obama were to be voted out of office, claims that his color had been at the root of what he did wrong would be absurd (“Just like a black, listening to all sides!”), as would be claims that his color was why he lost (“If he were white, I wouldn’t mind that he didn’t get that factory to stay in town!”).

If three years from now Obama were to be voted out of office, claims that his color had been at the root of what he did wrong would be absurd.

There are those who tell us that partisan anger with Obama is based at least partly in racism—but they could not honestly say that there would be no tea-baggers if the president were white and handling health care exactly as Obama has. With each race-related episode that has touched the man over the past year, the crucial question has not been whether, but how much racism played a part—and whether it mattered in any real way.

After a long day, many of us would already have to work a bit to remember Congressman Joe “You lie!” Wilson’s name. Or: Quick, what was the name of the police sergeant who arrested Henry Louis Gates—and extra credit if you can remember his first name.

It’s been a tough year for Obama, but it’s been all about the content of his character. Although—I’m told that some small children are asking whether America could have a white president.

John McWhorter is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and teaches at Columbia University. His Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History Of English recently appeared in paperback.