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Gary Younge

Brave New World? … Barack Obama signs his first act as president in the US Capitol building on 20 January 2009. Photograph: Molly Riley/AP/PA Photos
Studs Terkel's study of race in the US: 20 years on

Cultures do not come by their obsessions lightly. They tend them over generations, feeding them with myths, truths, pain, resentment, collective generalisations and individual exceptions. They pick at them like scabs until they bleed, and then mistake the consequent infection for the original wound. And then, like a hardy virus, the obsessions survive all attempts at inoculation by mutating into new and more stubborn strains.

Race in America, as Studs Terkel points out in the subtitle to his book ("What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession"), published 20 years ago this year, is one such obsession. "No African came in freedom to the shores of the New World," wrote 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville in his landmark book Democracy in America. "The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces."

By 1992, when Race was published, the laws had been abolished two generations prior, leaving the traces to engrave a deep and treacherous crevice between de jure and de facto. So there was never any risk that in the two decades since Terkel conducted most of these interviews, the book would be relegated to a period piece. True, numerous references to Louis Farrakhan, Harold Washington and Ronald Reagan certainly root the contributions in their time. Remarkable things have also happened to race in America since the book came out: black Americans have been eclipsed by Latinos as the largest minority; the black prison population has increased exponentially; a Republican right wing is on the ascendancy; and there is, of course, a black president.

And yet, for all that has changed, the frustrations, anxieties, animosities, alliances, and generosity – not to mention the confusion – that emerge from Terkel's interviewees remain both eerily familiar and deeply relevant to today's racial landscape. In the contributions of some white contributors we see the seeds of bitterness that would find both voice and vigour in the Tea Party. In the absence of any historical reckoning that might explain the threats to their relative privilege, they understand their condition as a moviegoer might understand a thriller having arrived halfway through. The villain is the person they see pull the trigger – the entire narrative that led up to that moment has no meaning. So black people mean crime, ghettos, affirmative action and falling house-prices for reasons that are framed in terms of individual weakness rather than institutional exclusion.

Americans' failure to reckon with and learn from the past was a major frustration for Studs. Gore Vidal famously branded the US the United States of Amnesia but Studs characteristically went one step further, calling it the United States of Alzheimer's. When I interviewed him shortly before his death, he complained: "We forgot what happened yesterday. We know all about Paris Hilton. We know about that. But what do we know about why we are there in Iraq?"

Twenty years on, the white workers he interviewed have seen their wages stagnate, their unions decimated, their jobs outsourced and inequalities grow. Globalisation, meanwhile, has accelerated almost unchecked, with American capital abandoning American workers for cheaper labour, weaker unions and fewer regulations in Mexico and elsewhere. Of 46 countries polled by Pew in 2008, Americans had the least positive view on foreign trade and one of the least positive on foreign companies. In the absence of a class consciousness that could create solidarity across racial lines, they seek explanations for this demise but many find only scapegoats. Depending on where they live, the object of their ire today is far more likely to be Latino immigrants than it was 20 years ago.

"Minorities are the flash point for a series of uncertainties that mediate between everyday life and its fast-shifting global backdrop," writes Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. "This uncertainty, exacerbated by an inability of states to secure economic sovereignty in the era of globalisation, can translate into a lack of tolerance of any sort of collective stranger."

In all sorts of ways the increase in non-white immigration from across the globe has complicated the dominant American narrative of black and white of which De Tocqueville wrote. The governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union and the last to fly the Confederate flag on its state house, is of Indian descent, as is the governor of post-Katrina Louisiana. Meanwhile, Alabama adds to its already ugly racist history by passing what is, at the time of writing, the most punitive anti-immigration law in the country. By 2042 white people will be a minority in the country. When the Tea Party declare they want to take their country back, they are in no small part referring to a return to the ethnic and racial certainties of the past.

The degree to which xenophobia and Islamophobia have embedded themselves into the racial discourse is evident from the way in which the far right have attacked Barack Obama. Accusations that he was not born in America (despite every shred of evidence proving he was), the emergence of "Muslim" as a slur, and constant demands to produce his birth certificate were all attempts to delegitimise him on the basis of his race. Whatever else was said about Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan, not even the most hardened bigot would suggest that they were not born in the US. The accusation levelled against many a black leader has long been that they were un-American; Obama, they insisted, was not even American at all.

Absurd as these attacks are, far more disturbing was the traction they gained in the population at large. Shortly before Obama produced his birth certificate, 38% of Americans were not convinced he was born in the country. In 2010, 70% of voters in Oklahoma supported the banning of Sharia law even though Muslims comprise less than 0.1% of the population. Following the confected controversy over the Park51 mosque in lower Manhattan, 28% of Americans believed Muslims should not be eligible to sit on the Supreme Court, while 33% believed Muslims should be barred from running for president.

But if Obama's election gave focus and form to a shift in racist attitudes, it also illustrated the flaws and fissures in racial solidarity. His entrance on to the political scene exposed the cracks within a black American identity in which increasingly, with growing immigration from Africa, not everybody is the descendant of slaves.

"When black Americans refer to Obama as 'one of us', I do not know what they are talking about," wrote Stanley Crouch. "He has not lived the life of a black American … If we end up with him as our first black president, he will have come into the White House through a side door – which might at this point be the only one open." Crouch's terminology was sloppy (of course Obama is black; he is also Kenyan American and mixed-race). But the underlying point was correct. Obama's forebears did not labour under the lash of slavery and Jim Crow. His election, magnificent though it was, offered a corrective to our understanding of American electoral racism, but not a counter-narrative to the legacy of slavery and segregation.

Moreover, arguments about his authenticity arose as a result of his mixed-race identity. "I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men," said Cornel West. "It's understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he's always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white … When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening."

Essentialism aside, such comments failed to take into account a context in which growing numbers identify as mixed-race as though it were a distinct identity, declaring unilateral independence from the one-drop rule. The 2010 census revealed an increase of around 50% of respondents marking more than one race on their census forms in the first 10 years that such an option was available. These trends were particularly strong in the south and northwest. In North Carolina, the mixed-race population doubled. In Georgia, it grew by more than 80%, with Kentucky and Tennessee not far behind and Indiana, Iowa, and South Dakota showing a jump of about 70%. "The fact that even states like Mississippi were able to see a large explosion of residents identifying as both black and white tells us something that people would not have predicted 10 or 20 years ago," William H Frey, a sociologist and demographer at the Brookings Institution, told the New York Times.

But Obama's election also signalled a dislocation between the symbolic advance of the individual and the substantial status of the group as a whole – a condition that would have been familiar to the many Chicago residents Studs interviewed following the election of Harold Washington. Obama's victory made all sorts of things seem possible. Polls show that African Americans now look at themselves differently. A January 2010 Pew survey revealed huge optimism. The percentage of black Americans who thought blacks were better off than they were five years before had almost doubled since 2007. There were also significant increases in the percentages who believed the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks was decreasing.

For all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, however, it has not actually fared better thanks to the economic crisis. In fact, it has been doing worse. The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power. Under his tenure, black unemployment, poverty and foreclosures are at their highest levels for at least a decade. In many ways Obama's election signalled the prevalence, in the black community, of individual success that sits side by side with collective failure. "We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions," Angela Davis told me before Obama's nomination. "But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder … There's a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change."

That the racial gaps in employment, income, incarceration, and educational attainment would persist and, in some cases, grow, has also returned the most intractable manifestations of racial discrimination to the bipartisan column. Studs conducted most of these interviews after a decade of Republicanism, halfway through George Bush Sr's presidency. The next 20 years would see Democratic presidents in the White House for half the time. Yet prison rates rocketed under Clinton while welfare was cut, and disparities have also grown under Obama.

So why the discrepancy between how black people feel about their president as opposed to how they are faring under him? Perhaps it reflects a mixture of realism and low expectations. That black Americans are doing worse than everyone else, and that the man they elected to turn things around has not done so, does not fundamentally change their view of how American politics works; almost every other Democratic president has failed in a similar way. Conversely, the fact that a black man might be elected president, that enough white people might vote for him, that nobody has shot him, really has changed their assumptions.

But these apparent contradictions also represent a far more deep-seated confusion that runs across all racial groups – a confusion, evident in most of Studs's interviews, that today can be divided into three related yet distinct parts. First, relatively few people want to think of themselves as racist. Even those who go on to make the most blatantly bigoted statements will, at some time in the interview, provide a disclaimer. Second, this is possible to a large degree because very few people seem to be able to offer any kind of working definition of racism, preferring to talk in terms of personal anecdote and individual prejudice rather than power and institutions. Most want to consider themselves and be considered by others as good and decent people, but there are relatively few signposts for how to navigate their way through their daily lives to get to that point. We have long understood that racism, whatever that is, is a bad thing. But it has not yet been understood that antiracism (as opposed to personal decency and conviviality) is the only force that can defeat it. Finally, as a result, the testimonies consistently moved back and forth between optimism and pessimism, defiance and resignation, hope and fear. The refusal, or inability, to engage with the systemic nature of the problem merely feeds the obsession.

From Hurricane Katrina to the shooting of Sean Bell, elections in Florida to profiling in Arizona – the 20 years since Race first appeared have provided us with many teachable moments. But for all the ways we appear to have progressed, it doesn't seem as though we've learned that much.

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