Now that Senator Barack Obama has secured the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, there is rampant speculation that our nation has crossed a racial threshold. Twenty years after another Black candidate, civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, posed the first serious threat to entrenched party power, Obama has shattered a barrier that, just one year ago, most observers, whether they admit it or not, thought impenetrable. The success of the junior senator has many Black Americans believing we have indeed “arrived.” Despite this very monumental moment, we should proceed with caution before we claim victory over America’s blind spot: race.
So, are we there yet?
It’s a legitimate question given the Obama candidacy and the willingness of many whites to support a Black candidate. After all, it was just 43 years when Blacks’ right to vote was enforced by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Feelings of euphoria are also being driven by some signs that many Blacks have comfortably settled into middle class lifestyles, with access to jobs and social networks that mimic, and in some instances, surpass their white counterparts. Visible signs of Black success and progress fuels claims that the vestiges of the nation’s racist past have all but been eliminated save a few isolated incidents. This picture of America transformed is driving a hopefulness that is at once a breath of fresh air and a cautionary flag.
Excitement over Senator Obama aside, we still have a ways to go before we can claim we have “overcome.” This is not to trivialize the senator’s inspirational run for the White House. It has indeed been breathtaking to watch. Still, on too many social indicators Black Americans not only lag behind whites but the extent of the disparity has some life and death consequences. Turning on any television news report and seeing Mr. Obama’s magnetic smile can momentarily make one forget about the extent of imprisonment among Blacks, the HIV/AIDS scourge, the achievement gap between Black and white students, death by gun and other signs of decay that are pervasive. It reminds us to put Senator Obama’s success in context and not lose sight of the work we have yet to do on the ground.
Throughout the primary election season pundits were gleeful in their prognosticating over a post-racial candidate in a race-neutral America; ignoring the glaring polarization of the electorate that was masked as gender-regional differences but rooted in race. While it made for entertaining television, it once again minimized the extent to which opportunity is still connected to color and the degree to which Black Americans are still marginalized.
Suddenly the emergence of Senator Obama erased all memory of Hurricane Katrina, the Jena 6, and Genarlow Wilson, and the fallout from the subprime mortgage scandal that was wiping out the financial security of Black households. The media became so giddy that the history of our country was divorced from the story of the senator’s meteoric rise. It was equivalent to skipping chapters of a book and summarizing the volume by recounting only the last chapter.
So, how do we deal with this duality? On the one hand many of us are ecstatic over the Obama candidacy and are proud to publicly express our joy; yet many of those cheering loudest know that beyond the ballot box exists a plethora of problems that defy sloganeering, symbolism or 30 second sound bites. We would do a disservice to our community, and the nation for that matter, if we get so caught up in this moment that we do not hold our government accountable for the work that has yet to be done to create a more equitable society.
We can do both: celebrate the phenomenal success of Senator Obama and keep our eyes trained on justice. It will require discipline given how proud we all feel at the sight of a Black candidate poised to sit in the Oval Office. We should all take a deep breath because the painful truth is that even an Obama administration will be hard pressed to confront some of the entrenched problems facing Blacks that is rooted in racism. This is even more so since his campaign has been tagged as a post-racial example of enlightenment. How can the nation elect a Black president and claims of racism still be legitimate? It is a question we will confront if the senator is successful in November.
We are not there yet but we are a lot closer than any of us could have imagined.