The Optics Have Changed. White Supremacy Remains.

Paul Butler

Paul Butler is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. He is the author of “Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice.”

UPDATED NOVEMBER 20, 2013, 9:53 PM


The election of the first African-American president scared some white folks who were comfortable with the racial status quo, and made many people of color optimistic about the prospect of change. But, so far, neither the fear nor the hope has been warranted – and that’s not a good thing. We needed a game changer but instead got more of the lackluster same.

The problem isn’t “race relations”; it is white supremacy – the ideology that white people are superior to people of color, and that whiteness is integral to the United States’s identity. White supremacy is the reason for the backlash against this year’s Miss America, who is of South Asian descent. It’s why the former slave-holding states are passing laws that make it harder for minorities to vote. White supremacy explains how a grown man can shoot an unarmed black teenager and successfully claim self-defense.


It didn’t seem crazy to think the election of a half-African man might take the United States to a better place. In retrospect, though, the belief was naïve.


Yes, there’s Oprah. But a few successful African-Americans do not change the fact that we have one black president, and nearly one million black people in prison. Jay Z and Beyonce don’t represent the average black family, which has one-sixth the wealth of the average white family.


Still, it is easy to look at President Obama, the most successful African-American in history, and believe that race doesn’t matter any more. Discrimination does not appear to have limited any of the president’s aspirations. It’s tempting to think that if he can become president, why can’t other blacks at least get off welfare?

At the coffee shop the morning after Obama was first elected president, I ordered my usual beverage from the African-American barista behind the counter. She smiled at me the way blacks all over the country were smiling at each other that day. She pointed to a homeless black man in his usual place camped outside the store. She said most days she slipped him some change, but that morning she told him: “Barack Obama is president. Get a job!”

Unfortunately, the president does little to disrupt this limited understanding of racial subordination. Last spring he told the black male graduates of Morehouse College: “Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination.”

The most powerful man in the world has some responsibility to demonstrate that he cares about racial justice. Instead he mainly avoids the subject. When Attorney General Eric Holder tried to go there – by calling us “a nation of cowards” – Obama rebuked him, saying, “I’m not someone who believes that constantly talking about race somehow solves racial tensions.”

When political reality forces him to address race – as in his famous speech during the first campaign, and his remarks after George Zimmerman’s acquittal – it comes across as explanations to white people about black anger from a black man who is not angry. It’s translation, not leadership.

It wasn’t crazy to think that, roughly 150 years after the abolition of slavery, the election of a half-African man named Barack Hussein Obama as president might take the United States to a better place. In retrospect, though, the belief was naïve. White supremacy has lost some of its prestige, but little of its power.

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