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University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 5, 2008

UI law professor says Obama election moves us closer to racial equality

Barack Obama's election as president is a huge and historic moment in America's racial history, but one that needs to be tempered by real world considerations, says a University of Iowa law professor and expert on race in the United States.

"It's an amazing event because I never believed there would be a black president in my lifetime," said Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor in the UI College of Law. "I've always been hopeful about the future of racial equality, and this election renews my faith in our ability as a country to improve race relations. I look at my three children and I think there will now be an entire generation of people their age who grow up thinking that it's normal for a black person to be president.

"It's an incredibly transformational moment in the mindset of Americans," she said.

What she finds interesting, though, is that race was rarely addressed directly by the candidates. "With the exception of Obama's absolutely brilliant speech on race in July, where he described and discussed both Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his grandmother as complex racial figures, candidates failed to confront the issue of race or racism head-on during the campaign." The general silence on race, Onwuachi-Willig contends, says much about the state of racial equality in the United States.

But unlike some analysts, who believe that the silence speaks to the arrival of a post-racial America that has overcome its racial divisions, Onwuachi-Willig sees it as society's continued unwillingness to confront the topic.

Onwuachi-Willig hopes that a symposium she's organizing for next spring will help kickstart those discussions that explore and close the country's racial divisions. The conference, which will be held in April 2009 at the UI College of Law, will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the founding of Critical Race Theory.

"The election of a black president is a perfect time to renew this conversation as we talk about whether we're in a post-racial society, and what role race will play in our future," she said.

Critical Race Theory is a legal theory that explores issues at the intersection of race, racism, and American law. It argues that much of America's legal jurisprudence is structured to maintain white privilege and power. For 20 years, Critical Race Theorists have argued that the country's judicial system should interpret laws in such a way that upsets the balance of power to create a more racially just society. They also have argued against all forms of subordination, including oppression based on class, gender, and sexual orientation.

Although Obama's election now means a black man will be president, Onwuachi-Willig said that doesn't mean America has achieved full racial equality.

"The fact that the Obama campaign didn't talk about race much and had to all but ignore the issue to get elected reveals that we're still not ready to truly address racism in this country," she said. "I think it shows that true racial equality is a ways off because we're still not comfortable with honest conversations about race. When we are, we will finally begin to move past racial divisions.

"But, definitely, Obama's election on November 4th was a huge step in that direction," she said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),