Obama Election Transformed Racism?

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Devon E. Sherman

Anti-racism activist Tim Wise discussed the significance of Barack Obama’s election in terms of racism and white privilege in the United States and what steps still need to be taken in order to turn individual accomplishment into systemic transformation a

Barack Obama’s election did not end racism in America, but transformed it, according to Tim Wise, an anti-racist activist who spoke to an audience of over 150 at Harvard Law School last night.

Wise said he first discussed coming to Harvard to talk about race several months ago. “A funny thing happened on the way to Harvard Law School,” he said, jokingly referencing the election of President-elect Barack Obama. “So now, racism is over. Thank you for coming and good night.”

But, Wise noted, the election of Barack Obama has not resolved the issue of racism in America.

Obama, he said, was an exception, not necessarily a rule. “Most job interviews don’t last 18 months to 2 years,” Wise said about the presidential campaign.

A prominent writer and educator, Wise was invited by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice to speak on his new book, “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.”

He joked that to celebrate the end of racism, he and a group of black friends could slowly drive down the streets of an upscale neighborhood in Boston. The police, he added sarcastically, “will show up and give all the black folks flowers, because that is the America we are living in today.”

He added that Obama’s election demonstrated a different form of racism in America, which he called “racism 2.0” and described as “enlightened exceptionalism.”

“We still don’t like black folk generally,” he said, referring to what he considered the view of the average white Obama-supporting American. “But this guy’s ok.”

Wise said American racism is masked by a culture of denial, pointing to a survey that indicated that only 11 percent of white Americans believe racism remains a serious issue. “If you want to know if racism is a problem in your country, you might not want to ask white people.”

He said that the President-elect chose not to speak about America’s prescient racial issues because of the political risks that they carry. “He would have immediately seen his political star heading in a different direction.”

Following his talk, Wise set aside time to answer questions from audience members, one of whom accused him of “race racketeering.” An impatient audience called for the questioner to sit down.

Sheila J. Hicks, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was more sympathetic to Wise’s views on Obama’s election.

Hicks said that she believes that Obama’s win was an example of change, but that the end of racism has yet to arrive. “It wasn’t November 4th.”