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'Post-racial' US still far from being colour blind

While Barack Obama's victory marks an unmistakable landmark in the struggle for racial equality, some civil rights groups worry victory will obscure the reality that this country is still very much fractured along racial lines.

WASHINGTON // A new moniker has been invented to describe an America in which a black man can be elected to the White House: "post-racial". The term, circulated by journalists and pondered by academics, suggests the US has moved beyond its checkered past of bigotry and hatred, that the racial barriers and inequalities once so prevalent in American society have melted away. But while Barack Obama's victory marks an unmistakable landmark in the struggle for racial equality, some civil rights groups worry that the afterglow of his win - and terms like "post-racial" - will obscure the reality that this country is still very much fractured along racial lines.

Wide disparities between black and white continue to exist, from incarceration rates to life expectancy, statistics show. And extremist hate groups, which preach the basest forms of bigotry, have found a wider audience in recent years, experts said. "It would be reckless to see this as post-racial phase of our society," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "There's an awful lot that still needs to be done."

In fact, the deep divisions in American society bubbled to the surface almost immediately after Mr Obama's victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, which, to many, was among this country's most inspiring moments. Since then the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a civil-rights group in Alabama, has reported a spate of racially motivated, anti-Obama hate crimes and other incidents of bias related to the election.

On Nov 5, for example, two 18 year olds in New York allegedly beat an African-American teenager while yelling "Obama! Obama!" A few days later in Idaho, parents were shocked to learn their children were involved in an "assassinate Obama" chant on a school bus. Black dolls hanging from nooses have been found in public spaces from Maine to Louisiana and graffiti depicting swastikas and KKK, the acronym for the Ku Klux Klan, have been scrawled on walls from North Carolina to Texas, according to the SPLC's report.

Mark Potok, the director of the intelligence project at the SPLC, estimates that hundreds of anti-Obama hate crimes have occurred since election day. "There is real angst out there," Mr Potok said, noting that the number of white supremacist groups has grown in recent years, even before Mr Obama's victory. "A significant subset of white people in this country feels that somehow the land their Christian forefathers built has been stolen from them."

Racism is not limited to white supremacists. Experts say milder, latent strains of racism, though sometimes unspoken, exist everywhere in America, where legal segregation existed until 1964. Paul Street, author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, for example, said the rise of prominent and successful African-American figures such as Mr Obama triggers fear in some who see it as a challenge to the privileged status whites have enjoyed in America for so long.

"It may operate at a subconscious level, but I think something may get under the skin of people at the sight of black authority figure," said Mr Street, who named Oprah Winfrey, the popular talk show host, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Tiger Woods, the golfer, as other examples. "It could be interpreted by a lot of people as a loss of status." In reality, however, such wealthy stars as Ms Winfrey and Mr Woods - and Harvard Law School graduates like Mr Obama - are the exception rather than the rule in the African-American community which, after centuries of slavery and other institutionalised inequalities, lags far behind whites in many quality of life indicators.

A quarter of US blacks live below the poverty line compared with about one in 10 whites, according to the US Census Bureau. Whites are twice as likely to attain a graduate or professional degree and the black unemployment rate is nearly double that of whites. An African-American man has a life expectancy six years shorter than that of a white peer. Many civil right activists point to institutions such as the criminal justice system as part of a foundation that is heavily biased against blacks. Nearly seven per cent of African-American men older than 18 are in prison, compared with about one per cent of white men, according to a survey by the Pew Center on the States.

"I think there is perhaps too much of a rush to pronounce the death of racism and its negative effect in the Unites States," said Dennis Parker, the director of the Race Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. "We have made progress - and it's been enormous progress - but it's too early to say we won the battle." Some worry that creating the illusion of a society where such disparities are suddenly no longer attributable to race - the concept of a "post-racial society" - will cause many to cast the blame on the African-American community.

"It reinforces this notion that their position in society is their own fault," said Mr Street, the author, who added that such views amount to a form of racism. "We're reinforcing the blaming aspects of racism by helping advance the notion that racism is over now." Mr Obama, for his part, has always been wary of the "post-racial" label, even when many used it to describe him early in his campaign.

"That term I reject because it implies that somehow my campaign represents an easy shortcut to racial reconciliation," he told Newsweek magazine in July 2007. "It's similar to the notion that if we're all colour blind then somehow problems are solved." sstanek@thenational.ae

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