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Youth and the Myth of a Post-Racial Society Under Barack Obama

While “post-racial” may mean less overt racism, the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is an act of willful denial and ignorance.

Students from William R. Harper High School in Chicago, Illinois, listen as President Barack Obama talks with them about the Emancipation Proclamation hanging in the Oval Office, June 5, 2013.

Part of the Series

With the election of Barack Obama, it has been argued that not only will the social state be renewed in the spirit and legacy of the New Deal, but that the punishing racial state and its vast complex of disciplinary institutions will, if not come to an end, at least be significantly reformed.[1] From this perspective, Obama’s presidency not only represents a post-racial victory, but also signals a new space of post-racial harmony. In assessing the Obama victory, Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote, “It is a place where the primacy of racial identity – and this includes the old Jesse Jackson version of black racial identity – has been replaced by the celebration of pluralism, of cross-racial synergy.”[2] Obama won the 2008 election because he was able to mobilize 95 percent of African-Americans, two-thirds of all Latinos and a large proportion of young people under the age of 30. At the same time, what is generally forgotten in the exuberance of this assessment is that the majority of white Americans voted for the John McCain-Sarah Palin ticket. While “post-racial” may mean less overt racism, the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature – it is an act of willful denial and ignorance. Paul Ortiz puts it well in his comments on the myth of post-racialism:

The idea that we’ve moved to a post-racial period in American social history is undermined by an avalanche of recent events. Hurricane Katrina. The US Supreme Court’s dismantling of Brown vs. Board of Education and the resegregation of American schools. The Clash of Civilizations thesis that promotes the idea of a War against Islam. The backlash facing immigrant workers. A grotesque prison industrial complex. [Moreover] … [w]hile Americans were being robbed blind and primed for yet another bailout of the banks and investment sectors, they were treated to new evidence from Fox News and poverty experts that the great moral threats facing the nation were greedy union workers, black single mothers, Latino gang bangers and illegal immigrants.[3]

Missing from the exuberant claims that Americans are now living in a post-racial society is the historical legacy of a neoconservative revolution, officially launched in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and its ensuing racialist attacks on the welfare “Queens”; Bill Clinton’s cheerful compliance in signing bills that expanded the punishing industries; and George W. Bush’s “willingness to make punishment his preferred response to social problems.”[4] In the last 30 years, we have witnessed the emergence of policies that have amplified the power of the racial state and expanded its mechanisms of punishment and mass incarceration, the consequences of which are deeply racist – even as the state and its legal apparatuses insist on their own race neutrality.

The politics of racism has hardly disappeared from the landscape of American culture and the institutions that support it. Poor minority kids now find themselves on a fast track extending from school to juvenile courts to prison. And the number of poor and minority kids, now aptly called the “recession generation” by Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of New York City’s Children’s Health fund, has increased from 13 million before the economic meltdown to an expected 17 million by the end of the year. And who are these kids? These are the kids marginalized by race and class, who are largely seen either as a drain on the economy or stand in the way of market freedoms, free trade, consumerism and the whitewashed fantasies of a cleansed, Disneyfied social order. These are kids who, not only have to fend for themselves in the face of life’s tragedies, but are also supposed to do it without being seen by the dominant society. Excommunicated from the sphere of human concern, they have been rendered invisible, utterly disposable, and heir to that army of socially homeless that allegedly no longer existed in colorblind America. Most of them, if not homeless, live in dilapidated housing, attend schools that are underfunded and literally falling apart, receive food stamps and eat mostly junk food when they can get it. They are the major targets of gun violence, lack decent health care and they often find themselves in hospital emergency rooms. These are the kids who experience daily, whether on the street or in school, draconian discipline policies that endlessly criminalize every aspect of their behavior and increasingly banish them from the very institutions such as schools that remain their last chance for getting a fair shake in life. It gets worse. For instance, a full 60 percent of black high school dropouts, by the time they reach their mid-thirties, will be prisoners or ex-cons and the drop out rate is as high as 65 percent in some cities.[5] This apartheid-based system of incarceration bodes especially ill for young black males. According to Paul Street:

It is worth noting that half of the nation’s black male high-school dropouts will be incarcerated – moving, often enough, from quasi-carceral lock-down high schools to the real “lock down” thing – at some point in their lives. These dropouts are over represented among the one in three African American males aged sixteen- to twenty-years old who are under one form of supervision by the US criminal justice system: parole, probation, jail, or prison.[6]

As the toll in human suffering increases daily, Obama and his Wall Street advisers bail out the banks and the rich just as crucial social services for children are being cut back, unemployment is soaring into record numbers and more and more youth of color are disappearing into an abysmal pit of poverty, despair and hopelessness. Raised in a blood-drenched culture of violence mediated by an economic Darwinism that harbors a rabid disdain for the common good, poor minority kids appear to be completely off the radar of public concern and government compassion. And Obama, for all of his soaring poetic imagery of unity and justice, falls flat on his face by allowing his Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan to offer up reform policies that amount to nothing more than another version of Bush’s No Child Left Behind with its anti-union ideology and obsessive investment in measurement and accountability schemes that strips any talk of educational reform of any viability while turning schools into nothing more than testing factories – policies that disproportionately punish brown and black youth. These racially exclusionary set of policies and institutions have become especially cruel since the beginning of the neoconservative revolution in the 1980s, and are not poised to disappear soon under the presidency of Barack Obama – in fact, given the current economic crisis, they may even get worse.

In short, the discourse of the post-racial state ignores how political and economic institutions, with their circuits of repression and disposability and their technologies of punishment, connect and condemn the fate of many impoverished youth of color in the inner cities to persisting structures of racism that “serve to keep [them] in a state of inferiority and oppression.”[7] Not surprisingly, under such circumstances, individual suffering no longer registers a social concern as all notions of injustice are assumed to be the outcome of personal failings or deficits. Signs of the pathologizing of both marginalized youth and the crucial safety nets that have provided them some hope of justice in the past can be found everywhere from the racist screeds coming out of right-wing talk radio to the mainstream media that seems to believe that the culture of black and brown youth is synonymous with the culture of crime. Poverty is now imagined to be a problem of individual character. Racism is now understood as merely an act of individual discrimination (if not discretion), and homelessness is reduced to a choice made by lazy people.

Unfortunately, missing from the discourse of those who are arguing for the kind of progressive change the Obama administration should deliver is any mention of the race-based crises facing youth and the terrible toll it has taken on generations of poor black and brown kids. Bringing this crisis to the forefront of the political and social agenda is crucial, particularly since Obama, in a number of speeches prior to assuming the presidency, refused to adopt the demonizing rhetoric often used by politicians when talking about youth. Instead, he pointedly called upon the American people to reclaim young people as an important symbol of the future and democracy itself:

[C]ome together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids.[8]

But if Barack Obama’s call to address the crucial problems facing young people in this country is to be taken seriously, the political, economic and institutional conditions that both legitimate and sustain a shameful attack on poor minority youth have to be made visible, open to challenge and transformed. This can only happen by refusing the race-based somnambulism and social amnesia that coincide with the pretense of post-racial politics and society, especially when the matter concerns young people of color. To reclaim poor minority youth as part of a democratic vision and a crucial symbol of the future requires more than hope and a civics lesson: It necessitates transforming the workings of racist power arrangements both in and out of the government along with the market-driven institutions and values that have enabled the rise of a predatory corporate state and a punishing state that have produced a polity that governs through the logic of finance capital, consumerism, crime, disposability and a growing imprisonment binge.

The marriage of economic Darwinism and the racialized punishing state is on full display not merely in the rising rate of incarceration for black and brown people in the United States, but also in places like East Carroll Parish in Louisiana where inmates provide cheap or free labor at barbecues, funerals, service stations, and a host of other sites. According to Adam Nossiter, “the men of orange are everywhere” and people living in this Louisiana county “say they could not get by without their inmates, who make up more than 10 percent of its population and most of its labor force. They are dirt-cheap, sometimes free, always compliant, ever-ready and disposable….You just call up the sheriff, and presto, inmates are headed your way. ‘They bring me warm bodies, 10 warm bodies in the morning,’ said Grady Brown, owner of the Panola Pepper Corporation. ‘They do anything you ask them to do….’ ‘You call them up, they drop them off, and they pick them up in the afternoon,’ said Paul Chapple, owner of a service station.”[9] Nossiter claims that the system is jokingly referred to by many people who use it as “rent a convict” and is, to say the least, an “odd vestige of the abusive-convict-lease system that began in the South around Reconstruction.”[10] This is not merely an eccentric snapshot of small town racism, it is also an image of what kind of future poor minority youth might inhabit.

Treating prisoners as commodities to be bought and sold like expendable goods suggests the degree to which the punishing state has divested itself of any moral responsibility with regard to those human beings who, in the logic of free-market fundamentalism, are considered either as commodities or as waste products, and this is true especially of young people. At the same time, as racism has been relegated to an anachronistic vestige of the past, especially in light of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, the workings of the punishing state are whitewashed and removed from the racialized violence that deeply influences and constrains the lives of so many young people. Consequently, the American public becomes increasingly indifferent to the ways in which the practices of a market-driven society – market deregulation, privatization, the hollowing out of the social state and the disparaging of the public good – wage a devastating assault on African-American and Latino communities, young people and, increasingly, immigrants and other people of color, who are relegated to the borders of American normalcy. Alarmingly, the punishing state, when coupled with the growing disappearance of newspapers and other crucial public spheres, not only produces vast amounts of inequality, suffering and racism, but also propagates collective amnesia, cynicism and moral indifference.

Under this insufferable climate of increased repression and unabated exploitation, young people and communities of color become the new casualties in an ongoing war against justice, freedom, social citizenship and democracy. While Obama speaks eloquently about the need to develop public polices that stress social investment rather than enriching the coffers of the rich, he has not produced adequate policies, especially in education, for whom poor and minority youth will no longer be viewed as either criminals or simply disposable. Instead of testing schemes, young people need structurally sound schools, smaller class sizes, high quality teachers, social programs that address the conditions that disable students from learning and a Marshall Plan committed to providing free education, health care, full employment through public works and a promise that the government is willing to invest as much time, money and resources in their future as it has invested so willingly in the past in the military-industrial complex and its expanding discourse of militarism. How much longer can a nation ignore those youth who lack the resources and opportunities that were available, in a partial and incomplete way, to previous generations? And what does it mean when a nation becomes frozen ethically and imaginatively in providing its youth with a future of hope and opportunity?

* * *

[1] For a brilliant analysis of the racist state, see David Theo Goldberg, “The Racial State” (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).

[2] Joe Klein, “Obama’s Victory Ushers in a New America,” (November 5, 2008). Online:,8599,1856649,00.html.

[3] Paul Ortiz, “On the Shoulders of Giants: Senator Obama and the Future of American Politics,” (November 25, 2008). Online:

[4] Jonathan Simon, “Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 59.

[5] Jason DeParle, “The American Prison Nightmare,” New York Review of Books, Vol. LIV, No. 6 (April 12, 2007), p. 33.

[6] Paul Street, “Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America” (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 82.

[7] Angela Y. Davis, “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture” (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), p. 98.

[8] From a transcript entitled “Barack Obama’s Speech on Race,” New York Times (March 18, 2008). Online:’s%20Speech%20on%20Race%22&st=cse.

[9] Adam Nossiter, “With Jobs to Do, Louisiana Parish Turns to Inmates,” New York Times (July 5, 2006). Online:

[10] Nossiter, “With Jobs to Do, Louisiana Parish Turns to Inmates.”

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