As I’m sure all of you already know, last week Barack Obama officially secured the Democratic Party’s nomination to be the next President of the United States. As many commentators, journalists, and bloggers have been saying, his status as the first non-White Presidential nominee of a major political party is truly historic in many ways.
I would like to place his historic accomplishment in a sociological context and specifically, how it fits into the larger landscape of American race relations.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard or read about the elation that many African Americans feel about his clinching of the Democratic nomination. Rightfully so, African Americans — and indeed all Americans — should rightfully feel proud that history has been made and that Obama’s nomination represents a milestone in American race relations.
At the same time, does his nomination mean that Blacks and other people of color have now “made it?” Have Blacks achieved racial equality now that “one of their own” is the Democratic nominee for President? And just as important, does this mean that Blacks and other people of color no longer need “special programs” like affirmative action?
Unfortunately, I am pretty confident that most sociologists will answer no to all these questions. That is, while Obama’s accomplishment is indeed historic and a significant step toward racial equality, the success of one or a relatively few high-profile Blacks does not mean that all Blacks have achieved equality.
In other words, we need to keep in mind that racial inequality operates at different levels — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. It would be a great moment in American society if we can completely eliminate racial prejudice on the individual level.
But even if that ever happens, racial inequality and discrimination will still exist on the institutional level because various policies, practices, and other mechanisms would still directly or indirectly benefit the White majority over Blacks and other groups of color.
That is, even if Obama were to win and become our next President, we should still understand that there are millions of Blacks and other people of color who still earn less money than a comparable White worker, even for the same job and with the same qualifications.
Or that suburbanization policies put into place some fifty years ago are still responsible for why Blacks of all social classes continue to be residentially segregated and relegated to lower-quality housing compared to Whites, which has contributed to why the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has increasing, even though the wage gap has narrowed.
Therefore, for those of us who support Obama, we should certainly celebrate this moment in American history and do whatever we can to see him elected as our next President. At the same time, I hope we keep in mind that our work is only another step down the road of achieving racial equality.