When President Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Americans across the country hailed the beginning of a “post-racial” era. After centuries of subjugation, pain and disenfranchisement, Americans of color looked to President Obama’s election as a symbol of political progress and the culmination of a future unimaginable even a few decades before. However, the realities of race in America have been a far cry from the glimmering portrait of “HOPE” and “CHANGE” that the Obama administration was supposed to bring. If anything, the waves of habitual police brutality against young black males has shined a glaring spotlight on the irony of having a black man in office — Obama’s presidency seems more and more like a mere token obscuring the reopening of historical scars.
The intense focus on the color of Obama’s skin helped perpetuate the notion that America now lived in an era of “color-blindness.” The continued stigmatization of the discussion of racism and any overt racial animosity also stifles the conversation of the structural issues that concern Americans of color. Masquerading under a pernicious guise of race-neutral rhetoric and diction, this new era of color-blindness has been a catalyst for profound reinvention in the public behavior of white America. However, it has failed miserably to promise the same equality in the economic, social or political spheres to the most historically deprived parts of the American racial hierarchy. Not only is it a superficial and empty promise for equality, but it also serves to delude Americans from the fact that Jim Crow continues to this day to exploit and oppress those of color.
When looking at the systemic disadvantages against minorities, the first terms that come to mind are structural racism and racial capitalism — the material inequalities that arise out of the institutional realities of capitalism. Specifically, racial capitalism looks at inequalities that span racial barriers, as well as capitalism’s tendency to marginalize people of color. In order to assume racial capitalism is real, we must first acknowledge that capitalism itself is fundamentally a system that creates wealth while disenfranchising those who are the bottom of the hierarchy. At its heart, capitalism is a system of inequality masquerading under the noble pretenses of “competition” or the “free market.” And within this framework, there is a subtle, almost invisible mechanism that actively looks to persecute the non-white — while these mechanisms were much more transparent several decades ago, they have evolved over time to become an injurious and predatory system that seeks to subvert efforts of racial and economic equity. The data is irrefutable — while white households have seen their wealth rise exponentially over the last several decades, the same cannot be said about their Hispanic or African-American counterparts.
Furthermore, we must look at racism not as a series of interpersonal violations, but a structural system of disadvantage that is founded on political and economic exploitation fully understood only through the lens of history. After World War II, the United States experienced a surge of wealth unparalleled in its history; the Allies’ victory over the Axis powers, the unscathed state of North America and the economic boom from war production all contributed to a higher quality of living and general prosperity. The 50’s ushered in a new age of the consumer revolution and the rise of the middle class — we remember this era from idyllic photographs of the nuclear family with their televisions and suburban homes. However, all of this growth was concentrated in white households, while median household income of black families stagnated. There were several reasons for this — one was the political barriers of Jim Crow, which was an egregious move by white legislators to actively diminish the political and economic power of Americans of color. African-Americans faced not only the insult of Jim Crow policy, but also attacks from white landlords and employers against black residents and employees. White flight also contributed to a systemic cycle of poverty in inner-city neighborhoods. After the Great Migration, affluent, white homeowners escaped the growing number of black neighbors into the suburbs, which saw economic growth and wealth leave these neighborhoods. As a result, standards of education, decent access to health care and living conditions in these disadvantaged neighborhoods substantially decreased, and its lingering implications are still very much seen and felt today.
American politics is governed today by personality over policy. Even President Trump was cognizant enough to remind voters on Twitter that he “loves Hispanics” on Cinco de Mayo. After all, posing with the best taco bowls made at Trump Tower Grill makes for better conversation than calling Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals and rapists.” Though liberals bemoan the neoconservative grasp on Washington, it is in times like these we can rally around bigotry to provoke meaningful, progressive change. With an unabashedly abrasive president, the national dialogue has shifted towards an analysis of how “presidential” his rhetoric is or what nonsensical thought he posts on Twitter every morning. At times, we may even discuss isolated instances of racism within the Trump administration. However, we must fundamentally question economic and political institutions and confront the dark legacy of our past to speak out and reinvent a structurally broken system that continues to systematically disenfranchise people based on wealth, race and gender. It is a problem around which the government and the American people may be reluctant to mobilize — however, it can only be remedied with their help.
Jason Jeong is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeongo Unchained runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.