‘Post-racial’? No: with a black president, all issues are racialized l Professor Anthea Butler

‘Post-racial’? No: with a black president, all issues are racialized

Anthea Butler

12:05 pm on 01/21/2013
File Photo: In this handout from the The White House, U.S. President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images, File)File Photo: In this handout from the The White House, U.S. President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images, File)

The inauguration of President Obama on Martin Luther King Jr. day is a powerful symbol of the progress in race relations in America. Symbols, however, do not have universal meaning. Since the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the nation has had to contend with two competing narratives: one, the election of the nation’s first African-American president meant America was now post-racial. The second narrative was that the election of Barack Obama meant that “America” was in peril, and that a Socialist Kenyan became president again through nefarious means. Which narrative will prevail in President Obama’s second term?  It depends on how race is confronted in the president’s second term, not only by the president, but by concerned Americans.

Since the presidential election of 2008, race relations in this country have deteriorated with the rumors that the president is a crypto Muslim, a Kenyan or any of the myriad of names (Obozo, Obummer) that have been given to him by conservative talk show pundits and detractors. Consistent calls for the president’s birth certificate during his first term, and other racial epithets and slurs from many sources including Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, and Rush Limbaugh seeped into portions of the country’s psyche, angering many people of color and galvanizing disenfranchised whites into polarized political camps. These racialized slurs against the president, fueled by conservative radio, television, and print media, have turned into a cottage industry of T-shirts, buttons and posters sold online and at Tea Party and other political rallies. Those who have promoted this racism are also quick to say that they are not “racists,” further compounding the issue.

All of this racial animus tumbled into the 2012 election campaign, leaving the Romney/Ryan ticket to win 59% of white voters in the 2012 election. That was 20 points more than the Obama/Biden ticket.  Despite this, the president won by a large margin, and with a broad coalition of support from all ethnic groups. With the president’s win, the racial animus has continued, threatening to engulf his second term as well.

There is no better time than the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Jr. birthday for the president to address the legacy of race and racism in the United States.  Most Americans remember one important line from the “I have a Dream Speech”:  “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The quote of King is lifted out of a critical speech highlighting the problems of the civil rights movement. Now it is used to validate America’s so-called post-racial society. The reality is, the last four years have been anything but “post racial.”

At the beginning of President Obama’s second term, it is important that the boil of racism festering during the last four years be lanced. How? By the president’s acknowledging the tensions in this country that are being currently racialized: gun control, health care, and immigration.  While the president’s race speech back in 2008 was a necessity on the campaign trail, perhaps the inauguration speech or his State of the Union address could acknowledge these tensions, explaining how they they subvert or distort our attempts to deal with the problems themselves.

How we as a nation work through our racial issues is important as we draw closer to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. America’s history in race relations has always been fraught, and it is time to revisit the legacy of the civil rights movement once more. The issues of race are not simply black and white, but now encompass a changing demographic in a nation of immigrants. If the president ignores the clamor, the poison will continue to seep, destroying “our more perfect union.” Now is the time to address the festering survival of racism, before divisions in our nation grow any deeper. We will become “post racial” not byceasing to talk about race, but by talking more: pulling the ugliness out of the codes and subtexts where it lurks, and confronting it directly.

Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


Straight, no chaser

Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Graduate Chair of Religious Studies. She holds a Ph.D from Vanderibilt University in Religion, a Masters in Religion from Vanderbilt, and a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. A historian of American and African American Religion, Professor Butler’s research and writing spans Religion and Politics, Religion and Gender, African American Religion, Sexuality, and Religion and Popular culture.

Professor Butler’s forthcoming book The Gospel According to Sarah on The New Press, explores the exploring the role of religion in Sarah Palin’s political action, and Palin’s influence on the Republican Party. Her first book, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World on The University of North Carolina Press is the first full-length academic book focused on The Women’s Department of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The book is an engaging look at African American women’s lives and civic engagement, highlighting how the of African American women’s social uplift in the church is rooted not only in respectability, but in strict religious beliefs.

A regular guest on the Melissa Harris Perry Show on MSNBC and a sought after media commentator, Professor Butler also provides commentary on contemporary politics, religion and social issues at Religion Dispatches, and her own blog, “You Might Think So” She also served as a consultant to PBS series God in America, and the American Experience on Aimee Semple McPherson.

Professor Butler’s future research projects include a book on African American Women education and missions work in the 19th and 20th century, and the sexual abuse cases in the American Catholic Church.




The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), an African American Pentecostal denomination founded in 1896, has become the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States today. In this first major study of the church, Anthea Butler examines the religious and social lives of the women in the COGIC Women’s Department […]



The Gospel According to Sarah is a fascinating new look at a little-understood but crucial side of Sarah Palin: her Pentecostal roots. Anthea Butler’s analysis trains the keen eye of a noted religion scholar on religious and political currents that have been widely caricatured but, until now, poorly understood.






Beyond Barack Obama: Is America Ready of a New Political Party ?

 Beyond Barack Obama: Is America Ready of a New Political Party ?

Written by: Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

President Barack Obama’s reelection victory speech at McCormick Place in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Rachel Maddow Show.

As whites lose their demographic majority over the next 30 years, is it possible for a new multi-racial coalition to effect a major political realignment?

ost people know Gary, Indiana as the birthplace of pop culture’s most iconic family: The Jacksons. But in March of 1972, nearly 10,000 people gathered in the small, overcrowded gymnasium of Gary’s West Side High School for the National Black Political Convention. During three days of intense debates, delegates hammered out a comprehensive National Black Political Agenda that represented a treatise between black voters and those seeking their votes. The National Black Political Convention was grounded in the belief that any meaningful movement for black advancement must be driven by an allegiance to black interests rather than political affiliation. The choice of Gary was significant. At the time of his election as one of the country’s first black mayors, Richard Hatcher took control of a majority black industrial town deeply scarred by failed economic policies and national indifference. In essence, Gary served as powerful evidence that electoral victories are necessary but insufficient for advancing community.

 Inside the convention, pan-Africanists like Queen Mother Audley Moore debated elected officials like Congressman John Conyers and the Stokes Brothers of Cleveland. The two most visible widows of the Civil Rights struggle, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, stood alongside “regular folks” from across the country, as debates raged over the merits of integration and coalition building.  Religious leaders like Minister Louis Farrakhan challenged scholars like Vincent Harding on the merits of connecting blacks’ struggle in the U.S. to efforts in other parts of the world. Cultural leaders like Amiri Baraka and Isaac Hayes suggested that the arts could be a powerful medium for articulating a global understanding of justice. Across the boundaries of region, religion, gender, class, and ideology, the National Black Political Convention challenged the monolithic view of black communities that often dominates popular understanding.

Yet with that diversity came intense battles over issue priorities and coalition partners. Roy Wilkins, then the executive director of the country’s oldest civil rights organization The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), criticized the meeting for its purposeful exclusion of white allies. Wilkins believed that omitting whites mirrored the very exclusion that blacks had fought against during the Civil Rights Movement. Other delegates contended that black political growth must be firmly rooted in community rather than party, institution, or alliance:

“The Black Agenda assumes that no truly basic change for our benefit takes place in Black or white American unless we Black people organize to initiate that change…Let us never forget that while the times and the names and the parties have continually changed, one truth has faced us insistently, never changing: Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant….. If we have never faced it before, let us face it at Gary. The profound crisis of Black people and the disaster of America are not simply caused by men nor will they be solved by men alone. These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates — regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies — can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the systems by which it operates…”  -The Gary Declaration: Black Politics at the Crossroads (1972).

The National Black Political Convention’s rejection of party politics as the solution to black ills has been echoed by many black political organizations. It reflected the Congressional Black Caucus’s longstanding motto that “Black people have no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, just permanent interests.” With the passage of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 it appeared that the United States had finally moved toward full inclusion. The first act was designed to eliminate racial and gender discrimination and the second was designed to protect black access to the ballot. Yet urban riots in places like Watts, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and Washington, DC were


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Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. Her forthcoming book from Yale University Press, “Once Convicted, Forever Doomed,” explores the impact of disenfranchisement civil death statutes on communities of color. Find her on twitter @KBDPHD

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