The Obama Effect: Understanding Emerging Meanings of “Obama” in Anti-Discrimination Law

The Obama Effect: Understanding Emerging Meanings of “Obama” in Anti-Discrimination Law

Indiana Law Journal
Volume 87: Issue 1 (Spring 2012)
pages 328-348
Symposium: “Labor and Employment Under the Obama Administration: A Time for Hope and Change?”

Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Charles and Marion Kierscht Professor of Law
University of Iowa

Mario L. Barnes, Professor of Law
University of California, Irvine

Panel 6: Employment Law: Antidiscrimination Law Under a Black President in a “Post-Racial” America?

The election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency on November 4, 2008, prompted many declarations from journalists and commentators about the arrival of a post-racial society, a society in which race is no longer meaningful. For many, the fact that a self-identified black man had obtained the most prominent, powerful, and prestigious job in the United States symbolized the end of an era in which Blacks and other racial minorities could make legitimate claims about the harmful effects of racism. In fact, on the night of the election, conservative talk show host Bill Bennett proclaimed that Blacks would have no more excuses for any failures or unattained successes. Black actor Will Smith essentially agreed with Bennett, proclaiming the following: “I love that all of our excuses have been removed. African-American excuses have been removed. There’s no white man trying to keep you down, because if he were really trying to keep you down, he would have done everything he could to keep Obama down.”

Along the same lines, many conservatives pointed to Obama’s election as a symbol of a racism-free society when they initiated constitutional challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the fact that Obama had earned only one in four votes from Whites in areas covered by section 5 of the Act while earning nearly half of all votes from Whites nationally, Texas lawyer Gregory Coleman argued that the Voting Rights Act was basically irrelevant in today’s society; to him and other conservatives, Obama’s election as president demonstrated as much. Coleman declared, “The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African American president is far different than when [the Voting Rights Act] was first enacted in 1965.”

Overall, many pondered whether Obama’s election signaled a new day for Blacks. The fact that Obama was biracial only made the symbolism stronger. The son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama represented a break from our nation’s troubled past with race and racism, not just because of his ability to become president but also because of his individual racial background.

In this Article, we explore the proclamations that have been made about an emerging “post-racial” society within the context of workplace anti-discrimination law. Specifically, as the title of our panel for this symposium asks, we inquire: What is the significance of having a biracial, black-white president (or more specifically, the first self-identified black president) to the enforcement of anti-discrimination law? What impact, if any, has President Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency and election as president had on discrimination in the workplace?

Based in part on our review of discrimination cases in which President Obama’s name has been invoked—in most cases, either to demean minority workers or with an otherwise discriminatory purpose—we conclude that having a biracial, black-white (or self-identified black) president has had a surprising effect on the enforcement of anti-discrimination law. Indeed, we contend that Obama’s campaign and election have, to an extent, had an unusual effect in the work environment. Rather than revealing that racism is over or that racial discrimination is diminishing in the workplace, Obama’s presence and prominence have developed a specialized meaning that ironically has resulted in an increase in or at the very least a continuation of regular discrimination and harassment within the workplace. In fact, our review of a number of anti-discrimination law cases filed during the political ascendance and election of Obama suggests that, within certain contexts, individuals have made references to Obama in ways that demonstrate racial animus against Blacks and those associated with Blacks or as a means for explaining why offending conduct toward racial minorities does not involve discrimination. In other words, in these contexts, the term “Obama” itself has become a new tool for racial harassment and discrimination as well as a new tool for denying the reality of racism…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,