America’s first black president leaves office in just a few days, eight years after coming in on high hopes for change in the country he led.
Despite many achievement over his time, many of which will likely be undone in the presidency of Donald Trump, the departure of Barack Obama leaves America arguing over his legacy.
One part of that legacy is whether Obama will have signaled the arrival of a post-racial
America. That was one of the biggest hopes when he took the oath of 2009 — that America had finally demonstrated that it had moved beyond its past of slavery and racism and had given the full might of the world’s most powerful nation to an African American. Of course, the reality has been more complicated and disturbing, with the president subjected to racist insults and challenges to his power that no previous president had endured. That race played no role in the opposition to Obama and his policies is not an idea worthy of rational consideration.
In this clip from CNN’s Reliable Sources program, a panel of journalists discusses Obama’s relationship with the press during his tenure. One notes that Obama will always be known as a ‘black’ president (even though no one seriously references any other POTUS as a ‘white’ president. Obama in media and in public consciously tried to play down his race during his first term as president, but during his second he began more freely using media to raise issues of race in criminal justice, political processes and popular culture.
This clip demonstrates one of the key concepts of media and race in America — that mainstream media operate largely in what we will call a ‘white default’ mode. That means media and most social institutions proceed from an assumption that whites and white culture are the ‘default’ modes of cultural sense-making and that members of races and ethnicities outside that perspective are judged as on the margins of the culture. Because whites dominate the culture (although, as we will learn this term, that dominance is fading…), their bodies, their traditions, their family structures, their ideas are defined as ‘normal’ in cultural conversation. This is less that overt racism than it is a demonstration of media ‘ideology’ as we will explain it early in the course. It’s also part of the explanation for a minority of Americans voting for Donald Trump as their president but a majority of the Electoral College naming him as chief executive.
America faced an important opportunity during these past eight years. It largely failed to take advantage of it. Whether a Great Regressive Whitelash will take its place is still to be seen.