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

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Indiana Law Journal

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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 antidiscrimination 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.