The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States brought questions about race in America to the forefront of political and social discourse in novel ways. It also gave rise to the claim that America had entered a post-racial era. What people mean when they invoke post-racial is often unclear, however. And is achieving a post-racial nation even possible or desirable? Most often, media figures have deployed the term to indicate that Obama the candidate and president deemphasizes the divisive history of race in America in favor of universal histories and experiences that unite.
Indeed, in his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Senator Obama himself laid the political and emotional groundwork for this version of the post-racial ideal in asserting that, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” During the 2008 Democratic primary, when video clips of sermons by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were decontextualized to emphasize black rage and political disloyalty, Obama delivered his landmark speech on race and politics. He condemned Wright’s comments for expressing “a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” In that speech, titled “A More Perfect Union,” Obama called on Americans to move past the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years” and “asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds.” Even though he made clear that he was not so naïve as to imagine that racial divisions could be overcome quickly or easily, he continued to press Americans to focus on what unites them rather than divides. “Mr. Obama now presides over a White House that constantly projects cross-racial unity,” Jodi Kantor wrote in Sunday’s New York Times. “When discussing in interviews what image the Obamas want to project, aides use one word more than any other: ‘inclusive.’”
In this view, post-racial means that American social and political life has become race-neutral and that, except for those on the fringes, Americans have rejected the overt practices of racial discrimination and hierarchy that have marked most of the nation’s history. Significantly, of course, this approach to post-racialism also calls on those peoples who have been subjected to such discrimination to themselves become race-neutral, refrain from appealing to the history of racism, and invest their hopes in the possibility of a “colorblind” nation. Indeed, the negative response by many of the president’s critics to his comments on the killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this year highlights the complicated position in which the president finds himself with regard to public discourse about race. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama noted. And although the majority of his remarks focused on Martin’s grieving family and the investigation, political figures like Newt Gingrich and columnists such as Michelle Malkin criticized Obama for invoking race at all, with the former calling his comments “disgraceful” and the latter, “political opportunism.”
Varied commentators in this “age of Obama” have made insistent and powerful arguments that America is not a post-racial society, that the claim is just naïve colorblindness repackaged, and that the long, painful, violent history of racial inequity requires continued attention to how race and racism operate in contemporary life. A banner headline—“Putting ‘Post-Racial’ to Rest”—at the top of the cover page of the Fall 2010 centennial issue of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis exemplifies the resistance among African Americans in particular to the premises of post-racialism becoming accepted as fact. In the strongly-worded opinion piece to which the banner referred, Rutgers-Newark Law Professor David Dante Trout wrote that, “Ever since Barack Obama became a presidential contender and the term came into use, many of us have looked forward to its demise. Not because it is unworthy.” In fact, Trout noted, American liberals in the Civil Rights Movement had premised their work on hopes similar to those invoked by the term post-racial, but he emphasized that the mythology currently attached to the word obscures the persistence of racial inequity in American society. In a 2011 New York Times blog post, Touré pleaded with Americans to stop using the term. “It’s a term for a concept that doesn’t exist. There’s no there there.” Last month in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected on the political consequences and constraints that claims of a post-racial America have placed on the president. “The irony of Barack Obama is this,” Coates wrote, “he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear … and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.” Coates charted the challenges that Obama, the child of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, faces in signifying as black (both inevitably and intentionally) but not so black (read angry) that he makes white Americans feel uncomfortable. Had America truly arrived at the post-racial moment, this sort of balancing act would not be necessary.
The widespread contention that Obama was not born in the United States and, therefore, is ineligible to hold the office of president of the United States resonates powerfully as a belief grounded in racism that is impervious to countervailing evidence. Indeed, in invoking the “birther” sensibility in his recent campaign quip that “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Mitt Romney gave voice to the suspicions of many. According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Americans are not sure of or reject the authenticity of the official birth certificate Obama released to the public in 2008 in response to relentless questioning of his citizenship. The view that President Obama is not Christian as he professes, but Muslim, has also become commonplace in contemporary American life. In July, a poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 17 percent of respondents incorrectly identified Obama as a Muslim and 65 percent among those are uncomfortable with his “religion.” While this represents a 2 percent decrease since 2008 (but among Republicans, an increase from 16 percent to 30 percent), the persistent suspicion is that the president is, at worst, a radical Madrassa-educated Muslim who hates Christianity and America, and at best a dishonest closeted Muslim. Moreover, many Americans connect and conflate these doubts about the president’s religion and place of birth, as in the case of woman who declared at a Rick Santorum event in January that, “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not.” She continued, “He is an avowed Muslim. My question is: Why isn’t something being done to get him out of our government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.” Concerning conflations of race and religion in evaluations of the president, Coates concluded, “The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.”
The complex tangle of race, religion, and citizenship requires more nuanced analysis than the reductive binary that post-racial or not post-racial provides. Without question, this is a difficult cluster to disentangle—if such a thing is even possible—made so by the fact that race, religion, and national identity have been bound up together in complicated and shifting ways across American history. Religious beliefs have contributed to the production of ideas about race in American history by helping to interpret inconsequential physical differences through a moral lens and, at times, conferring divine authority on racial hierarchy. Similarly, ideas about race have contributed to evaluations of the religious possibilities and faith claims of differently racialized peoples in American history. These intertwined constructions of race and religion have developed in a context in which both contribute to ideas about American national identity and citizenship. Declarations of post-racial achievement obscure the multidimensional operations of racial thinking in American history as well as the rich spectrum of approaches that people of African descent (who most often bear the burden of “race”) have taken to understanding the relationship among race, religion, and Americanness.
Consider the case of Americans’ military service during the Second World War which, for so many, serves as a sign of American military might, moral commitment, and communal sacrifice. Men and women of African descent participated in the war effort in many capacities, ever mindful of the burden of what was called the “Double V” campaign: victory in the war abroad and victory over racial discrimination at home. Service in a segregated military in which black units were most often relegated to menial labor provided a clear reminder of the persistence of racial discrimination. Even the experience of registering for the draft sometimes became a contest between long-standing state-authorized ways of defining race and the resistance of many black Americans to shoe-horning themselves into a limited set of racial categories. In fact, the period during which Americans mobilized for the war effort coincided with a time of religious creativity in black urban America that raised a range of unique, unprecedented, and challenging questions about the relationship among religion, race, and Americanness. Fostered by African American migration from the South to northern cities and the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean to these same cities in the years between the world wars, this religious creativity was expressed, in part, in the formation of a number of religious movements that offered alternative religious and racial categories to people of African descent. Rejecting the label of “Negro” and its association with slavery in the Americas, founders and members of these new groups understood their collective histories in ways that lifted them out of the rigid racial hierarchy in force in the United States. Their challenge to the logic of race in America was political in that most were interested in gaining full citizenship rights, but their alternative approaches were inseparable from religious commitment. In seeking to become post-racial—in the sense that they rejected conventional American categories—members of some groups took routes to understanding their place in wartime America that led them embrace a different set of racial categories and others rejected race entirely in favor of a religious sense of self.
On April 25, 1942, for example, the religious leader Father Divine joined an estimated thirteen million other men in the United States between the ages of 45 and 64 who were called that same weekend in the fourth round of draft registration for the Second World War. Divine was the founder of the racially-integrated Peace Mission Movement in which followers believed that he was God in a body but, as an embodied being, he complied with the requirement that he appear before his local draft board in Harlem. He registered under the name “Reverend Major J. Divine,” the one he used most frequently in public, and listed his occupation as clergyman. Although he was most probably born George Baker in Rockville, Maryland, he gave his birthplace as Providence, Rhode Island, perhaps a whimsical gesture to his sense of his own providential power. The remainder of the form consisted of a “registrar’s report,” including a physical description of the registrant in terms of height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion and race. Except for height and weight, the registrar needed only to place a check mark next to the appropriate descriptor on lists already printed on the form. When, however, it came to representing Divine’s race, he and the registrar came into conflict. She placed a check mark next to “Negro,” but his rejection of all racial categories as the product of the devil (“the other fellow,” as Divine often said) moved him to insist upon an amendment to the form. The registrar complied with Divine’s request, writing in the alternative in capital letters so that it spanned the entire list of pre-printed racial designators. In the end, Father Divine’s draft card listed his race as “AMERICAN.”
Father Divine was not the only man registering for the draft that April weekend who normally would have been classified as Negro but who on religious grounds rejected commonplace American racial categorizations. The records of the so-called “old man’s draft” contain rich evidence of unconventional religiously-grounded approaches to racial identity. Members of various congregations of black Hebrews, many of them immigrants from the British West Indies, rejected Negro in favor of Ethiopian Hebrew, an identity that represented their sense of an ancient connection to the biblical Hebrews. Members of the Moorish Science Temple who understood themselves to be literal descendants of Moroccans and, therefore, “Asiatic” Muslims, most often characterized their race as “Moorish American.” Father Divine’s followers embraced his theology that denied all racial categories and declared themselves to be simply human which, when they acquiesced to the man’s request, draft registrars usually added next to Negro on the form. But registrars themselves often resisted these attempts by men of African descent to define their identities in ways that did not conform to current American ideas of race. When Faithful Solomon who, like other followers of Father Divine had changed his name to reflect his new spiritual identity, insisted that the racial categories printed on the form did not apply to him, the registrar noted, “says he is of the human race, but is obviously Negro,” as if the two were mutually exclusive.
The image of these men asserting their sense of divinely-given identity in a rebuke of the American system of racial categorization even as they affirmed their Americanness is powerful. This group of registrants grew up in the last decades of the nineteenth century as America was producing the system of Jim Crow segregation that would mark the first half of the twentieth century. In 1942 they were required to register for possible service in a racially-segregated military, an experience that tainted an expression of national service and belonging with hierarchy and exclusion. This small group of men in the “old man’s draft” represented the positions of many more women and men of African descent who did not find themselves before a draft board in April of 1942 but who also understood themselves, their communal past, and future destiny in terms that broke radically with commonplace notions of race in America. This period was unique in American history: new religious movements flourished in black communities of the urban North and wartime mobilization called for a united citizenry, all while practices of racial segregation and discrimination continued. When these men intervened into the system of racial classification during the draft, they threw a spotlight on the contradictory reality of being called to fight for democracy abroad and being denied access at home on the basis of race.
What we learn from recognizing a longer history of debate among people of African descent in the United States about how religion and race shape what it means to be an American is that the “racial” of “post-racial” has no fixed or obvious meaning. Members of the black new religious movements of the early twentieth century wrestled with the religious implications of American racial categories and the racial meaning of religious commitment in complex ways and reached conclusions that have been embraced by some and reviled by others. However, when we bring their perspectives into view, we cannot help but see the limitations of the stark binary that underlies current discussions of post-racial America. Moreover, taking time to understand why and how religion and race were so intimately intertwined for members of these groups helps to shed light on the diverse ways contemporary Americans draw explicit and implicit connections between these categories. In the current election cycle, as in the previous one, President Obama continues to be cast as unfit for office through “birther” conspiracy claims, a persistent suspicion that he is a closeted Muslim and, therefore, anti-American, and the promotion of an image of him as pandering to angry black Christians (as Tucker Carlson attempted one day before the first presidential debate). Unfortunately, the stark terms of post-racial America or not post-racial America do not provide the tools for interpreting the history of these tangled threads of race, religion, and Americanness in subtle ways. This is not surprising given the starkness of racial hierarchy and the practices of racism in American history. However, acknowledging past perspectives that represent alternative visions may help us resist the present temptation to simply embrace or reject post-racial status and think more carefully and expansively about race, religion, and American life.
Judith Weisenfeld is Professor of Religion and Associate Faculty in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949.
Monitored by Christopher C. Happ 2009 The Constitution does not mention a right to privacy; The Bill of Rights does, although The Supreme Court has advanced the notion that in certain places and under certain circumstances an individual has rights to privacy but only when there is a reasonable expectation of privacy; there is no such thing any longer. Not in public or on the company website, on the highways in your car and soon ( already) in your home. IV Amendment :The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Secure: Not worried, reliable, well guarded and fortified, safe, assured. Encarta Dictionary: English ( North America) Seize: Take hold of something, exploit something immediately, affect somebody suddenly, appropriate something . Encarta Dictionary: English ( North America) There is no privacy, it is already lost, possibly forever, unless we finally stand up and decry it. There has never been a new technology that has not been abused for nefarious purpose. Photography, sound recordings, video cameras, phones and now computers. The papers mentioned in the IV Amendment are cast aside now; at one time paper documents were the only way to record information, personal journals, letters, artwork and later video and audio tape, now digital media. Can you imagine someone just walking into your house and going through your personal items? With the internet everything is available to almost anyone with the technology to get it, hackers, the government, the police. Would the IV Amendment not include digital information? It appears not. This information gathering has gone too far and we act like a herd of sheep. Some would espouse that we need these controls, for the betterment of our lives and our safety. Others will point to conspiracy theories; usually labeled as paranoid. Whichever side of the argument you take- it is being done every day, 24/7/365 .. Do you trust the use of your information? Why not make all homes and offices of Plexiglas? What's the difference? There is none. Every abuse of new technology is promoted as being for your own safety and quality of life. Information gathering is now global. Think of all of the ways you are tracked. Progressive insurance company will give you a discount for allowing them to install a box on your car that monitors your driving habits. ( I think of the Jingle for Geico, “Somebody's watching you”.) This is touted for your own good that of others and improving your life by reducing cost. Most, if not all new vehicles have black boxes - Event Data Recorders, that digitally store your speed, airbag deployment, angle of the steering wheel and the application of the brakes. How far is too far? When phones and telegraph were invented, it was not long before both could be tapped. Cell phone communications can be monitored by anyone with a few dollars worth of equipment. There is no more Science fiction it is all Science fact. Think of all of the ways you are tracked. The most heinous is the use of your Social Security number. There it is again, security. The use of this number as a personal identifier, forged the way for the misuse of information that has occurred. The number was for one use; an account number to track your benefit. A benefit crafted by the assertion that money taken from you now can provide security to you at a later date. Because you cannot be trusted to care for yourself. The information gathering promoted to protect, does exactly the opposite; there are more fraudulent schemes now than ever before in history. Credit information is stolen regularly and used for elicit purposes. The very people collecting the information cannot protect it but it is supposed to protect you. Why does a passport need a biometric chip? To track your whereabouts, not for the security it touts, just look to 9/11 and our porous borders to the North and South, to see the fallacy of that. There are speed and red-light cameras, yet children are still killed in the crosswalk, drivers still speed, drunks still careen into families, drugs are still transported- all just revenue generators and control mechanisms. No one can save you from the dangers of existence but the ill-intentioned, the power hungry and the thief will try to convince you that they can. It's for your safety, your own good, your health, your bank account. All gathering of revenue through taxation is a control measure. Due to property taxes, you never truly own your land or home. Miss a payment and it becomes the government’s, either State or Federal. You register your gun, your ca;, we need to know who you are and where you are at all times. Grocery store cards offer discounts and are used for targeted advertising. All of that information is stored somewhere and neither you nor I know where or how it is used. Anyone accessing it can track everything you've purchased, harmless you say? With the debate over healthcare, your purchase of butter and steaks could be tracked and then taxed, or used to deny treatment. Again for your own good and that of society. We use debit cards and credit cards; the information pinpoints your whereabouts to the millisecond and exact geographical coordinates. Many use direct deposit, where your money is automatically deposited for you. The only problem is, it's not money, its credits, units if you will. This was promoted for ease and your protection, carrying cash can be dangerous, again— your safety in mind. Of course getting your money from a machine, in view of all, is likely more dangerous than cashing a check inside a bank. But there are cameras for your safety; they can photograph you and your assailant- you lying in a pool of blood with the attackers DNA all over you- buy you're still dead. I am certain that paper money will soon disappear, likely in my lifetime. It will be promoted as another Green initiative, saving countless trees, cotton fields and protecting us from hazardous chemicals in the ink; it will reduce the government’s costs. On the contrary, it will just increase the control over you and your affairs. We are being slowly made comfortable— incrementally, by our leaders like a cat who stalks his prey a step at a time, hidden in the grasses. Every thing you buy from food, fuel, how much electricity you use and where you go is an open book to anyone who can access it, and there are many. There is a plastic strip in your money with the denomination printed on it and then sandwiched between the layers. It is only plastic and not a tracking device, for now. Control the money and you control the population. It astounds me that credit cards and credit bureaus must send you a privacy statement, even though there is no privacy! It explains how your information will be used and by whom. These institutions can't protect your information and are the only source and the only reason for fraudulent use of it. Credit information or better just information gathering services tell us that this invasion of privacy will assure that lenders make solid loans, that employers hire quality employees, through, credit checks, background checks, drug tests and even personality tests but the recent spate of bad mortgage loans and undocumented employees, some criminal, and worse those same able to access your information for nearly every transaction. Drug-free workplaces that hire momentarily drug-free employees, still occurs. This collection and the justifications for it are simply lies. Think of it, to know everything about your neighbor could give you the upper-hand in times of strife. The information could be used to embarrass, extort and ultimately control. There are RFID chips, (Radio Frequency Identification Chips.) They can help a merchant track inventory and control theft. This technology is used on electric meters in some locales to read meters from a van with equipment that can read the information from the alley in your home. This keeps down your cost and is more efficient; again for your safety and quality of life. Isn't that amazing? They are now taking about smart thermostats that not only monitor but control your use of energy, this for the good of the planet, and you buy that explanation? I cannot fathom what sane person would make use of On Star. We hear the commercials, “Mr. Jones, I see your airbag has deployed, do you need help?" The tracked driver responds in a feeble voice, " Yes, please.” wimpering like a mindless sot. Then there is woman with a child who is lost. How is this promoted? For your protection and safety. Whenever someone or some organization begins to offer you security, safety and a better way of life, run, or at least stand up. Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Sadly we have neither. Another example, possibly the least offensive is Google mail for, I did not realize until recently that whatever you type in the subject line or body of an email, instantly produces a series of ads related to the information you entered, on the sidebar. . If a woman tells a friend about a new negligee', or if a man talks about his AR-15, ads for lingerie and guns appear. This is referred to as targeted advertising and you are the target. It annoys me that a computer can instantly decipher what I write. Hard drives can never be completed erased even after formatting. High level software can recreate every bit. Add to this, that all the information is sent to and stored by many servers, actually who knows how many, where or why? To be truly free is to be free to fail, to lose. We all die of something and no one can protect us from death or calamity. The planet that is billions of years old is immune to man's feather light attacks. To have handed over my safety, security and that of my family to another is the greatest insult, the most shameful act, in my opinion. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay Compensation ( 1841), says, "He may soon come to see that he had better broken his bones than to have ridden in his neighbor's coach, and that 'The highest price he can pay for a thing is to ask for it.' " Without government control, now called by the euphemism reform;, the good -hearted doctor will still treat those unable to pay, while the wicked Charlatans of the profession will still milk the system. The charities, will set up orphanages, homeless shelters, hospice and medical care but by those who choose to give freely, offered from a good-heart not those bound into servitude by tyranny. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men...There is no worse heresy than that, the office sanctifies the holder of it." Lord Acton I