Anti-black racism in the United States continues to be a problem over half a century since the abolition of Jim Crow laws. These laws enforced segregation between black and white Americans in public places.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in employment and banned race-based segregation, as well as sporadic efforts by successive US governments to tackle racial inequalities, racism still looms large in 21st-century America.
Even if it is not a national trend, minorities in the US continue to receive discriminatory treatment from law enforcement officials and face major obstacles in securing housing, health care and quality education, as well as experiencing irregularities in the justice system. To make matters worse, things have escalated under President Donald Trump.
Some scholars talk about the existence of structural racism in the US, and there are statistics that corroborate this. In 2018, a poll by NBC News/SurveyMonkey found that a majority of Americans believe racism is a major issue in the United States. According to the poll, 64% said “racism remains a major problem” in society. This is while 45% of Americans believe race relations are getting worse.
In 2017, a poll by Quinnipiac University scholars found that more than six in 10 Americans say the “level of hatred and prejudice in the United States has increased since Trump was elected president.”
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Akil Houston, a filmmaker, social critic and an associate professor of cultural and media studies at Ohio University, about racial inequality, the politics of race and the portrayal of African-Americans in the media.
The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: The election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States in November 2008 was a turning point for the nation and for African-Americans. How do you evaluate his performance in terms of challenging and bridging the divide between black Americans and the rest of society?
Akil Houston: I don’t wholeheartedly agree with the premise of this question. Symbolically, sure. The election of Barack Obama did not change the material conditions for black America. Yes, his election was inspirational, for US citizens who longed for evidence to support their belief in meritocracy or for those who misguidedly felt his win signaled the dawning of a post-racial country.
The Obama presidency was not remarkably different than any other concerning key issues impacting African Americans. I would argue — as others have — it would be, and was in some instances, more damaging to have a black man speaking from the platform of the presidency reinforcing the myth that racial inequality in the United States is the burden of black America — the question also gestures toward this.
In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Barack Obama highlighted what would be a common theme in his approach to race when he said:
“[A]s a general matter, my view would be that if you want to get at African American poverty, the income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids. Higher minimum wages, full-employment programs, early-childhood education: Those kinds of programs are, by design, universal, but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit African Americans.”
This perspective does not focus on racism as the key factor in the divide, nor does it offer any specific remedies for black America. In fact, as many historians, journalists and those from the “alternative” or “radical left” and progressive camps argued, conditions worsened during his presidency. While the obstructionist role Republicans took during his tenure cannot be undervalued, the administration took a position of non-position on racial matters.