When Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American president four years ago, his race was a major talking point. Now, the issue of race might seem all but forgotten, but racism has not disappeared.
Euronews spoke to Democratic congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton about this. A veteran civil rights activist, she told us that racism has simply been camouflaged by political correctness.
Norton said: “What you will find difficult to discern is the racial tarnish somewhere on this that may be feeding some whites in America, but I have come to believe that it is absolutely there. It is very unrespectable to be racist in America today, even if you are. So it will be very difficult to pull that out and identify it.”
A survey for the 2008 election said Obama would have won by an extra six points if he were white. Norton gives a further illustration of the black handicap: “Not since President Jimmy Carter has a Democratic president gotten the majority of the white vote. So, if that’s the case with a white man who ran for president, you can image that it would be even more the case for the first black man to become president.”
While the US population is still mostly white, the way that is changing means whites will soon be outnumbered.
Recent US census bureau figures show that the number of ethnic minority babies being born has surpassed the number of white newborns.
Norton anticipates major social and political repercussions: “In the not so far future this country will have a majority of people who are people of colour. There are people, certainly of a certain generation, for whom this is nothing less than threatening. And the President is associated with all of the great changes in modern society.”
For Norton, the persistent questioning of Barack Obama’s origins by some ultra-conservative Republicans is representative of deep-seated racial convictions in the United States.
She said: “They are really saying: a black man who is – a black man, that’s bad enough! – but a black man whose father came from Africa, give me a break! They are saying: ‘We don’t want this man, no matter what your evidence.’ Now this is something that they would never want to say outside of the confines of their own homes. But it is too clear, it seems to me, to be suppressed.”
Along with race, religion has increasingly played a role in US politics since the 1970s. The actions and attitudes of the religious right have pressured the Democrats into highlighting their own religious attributes.
On that Norton says: “It is important to note that religion has been politicised in this country for at least 20 years. Most candidates profess what their religion is – who cares! – and why? Because they hope that that will say something about their values, would draw some people to them. Even the President spoke of his Christianity!”
America’s religious diversity reflects, notably, on questions of abortion. The Supreme Court ruled that it is a fundamental right under the Constitution – four decades ago – but disagreement still inflames the country.
Norton has strong opinions on that: “Take the controversial issue of abortion. We respect those who for conscientious reasons oppose abortion. Many of us want to have nothing to do with such people who would like to enact that into law and make our beliefs succumb to theirs. That is not what a free society which respects religion and tries to keep religion out of public life is all about.”
Many white Americans were proud, along with black Americans, that an African-American was elected president of the United States. But equal opportunity sceptics still see a long way to go for America’s racial progress.