Abstract

The 2008 election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency is racially momentous. Few would gainsay that the elevation of an African American to the most powerful and most public position in our national life signals a remarkable step toward racial equality. But what exactly does Obama's election portend for race in America? This Essay uses the tremendous racial disparities in the American crime control system to assess race and racism as key features of contemporary society. The Essay begins by considering a compelling thesis that racialized mass incarceration stems from backlash to the civil rights movement. If true, this raises the possibility that Obama's election, potentially marking the end of backlash politics, also represents a likely turning point in the war on crime. The Essay then reconsiders mass imprisonment from the perspective of "racial stratification," a structural theory that emphasizes the simultaneous formation of racial categories and the misallocation of resources between races. A stratification approach leaves one less sanguine about rapid change in American race relations, though without disparaging either the historic nature of Obama's inauguration or the possibility of incremental improvements in racial justice. Recognizing the continued need to push for positive racial change, the Essay concludes by arguing for a renewed focus on racism, in particular on "post-racial racism."

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