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The Meaning of Barack Obama to America's Race Problem

By       Message Herbert Calhoun       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Already lavish claims are being made on all sides of the racial divide as to what Barack Obama’s election might mean for race relations in America. Many see it as the ultimate proof that the U.S. has truly turned the corner and is finally about to overcome its embarrassing racist past. Seeing Jessie Jackson crying as Obama was declared the victor in the national election, indeed did touch me very deeply. And in this sense, it would be foolish not to pause from centuries of racial strife and acknowledge fully that having a black man ascend to the highest office in the land is indeed an important and a unique milestone and symbol of what the American nation is capable of achieving in the area of race relations.

I heartily salute my country on achieving this important symbolic milestone and victory. No matter what happens in the future, no one can take this small victory away from us.

Yet, it must be said as well, that since Obama’s election is just a symbol, or at best just another milestone in the very slow progression towards full racial equality in the U.S., his election must be seen as just another of many beginnings, rather than the end to a rather long and tortuous unfolding story. For it is still true that if one were to accidently wander just two blocks from the Capitol building in almost any direction, (as I did when I first came to the nation’s Capitol as a visitor from Arkansas in 1959) one will find unimaginable squalor in the black ghettoes that exist just a stone’s throw from the center of the Western world, that is in the very backyard of the nation’s capitol.

The point is that symbols do indeed matter. But no matter how dramatic, or how welcomed, or how thrilling, they may be – and Barack’s election is the most thrilling thing we have seen since Reconstruction -- they are never the full story, nor can they be the answer to America’s race problem. The progression of race relations in America has always been two steps forward and three steps backwards. And it is thus a given that:

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Barack Obama’s election is not the answer to America’s race problems.

In fact, just the opposite may indeed be the case. In the after glow of the Obama election, the issue of race will certainly loom larger. New expectations and a new kind of urgency for progress will be a natural adjunct to this symbol of new possibilities. If they are dashed, as they have always been in the past, and as I predict they will be again, then there could be racial trouble even on “Obama’s watch:”

As but the most obvious example of the vast distances that still exists between the races in America, including in the nation’s capitol, the public schools in the nation as well as in the nation’s capitol are in many way a unique and profound embarrassment. They are as segregated in the year 2008 as they were in Mississippi or Arkansas in 1954. It is well known to everyone, that inner city public schools do not educate as they once did, but only warehouse and baby sit large numbers of black inner city kids.

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And even though DC's new Chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is trying to do the impossible: make DC schools educate again, she will never be able to make the DC public schools good enough that non-Black students will attend them. And just as is true of the rest of the nation, none of the legislators, including the black ones (nor Ms. Rhee for that matter), would ever consider sending their kids to Washington D.C’s public schools, nor would they ever consider living in the district’s crime ridden black ghetto neighborhoods only blocks away from the capitol -- that is not without being crouched behind the walls of a high security gate or fence.

Two hundred and thirty five years after the Boston Tea Party, the District of Columbia remains the only municipality in the land that is stilled taxed without representation and the United States is still not ashamed of this fact. And as the Kerner Commission Report predicted in the aftermath of the Watts riots, despite Obama’s election, the United States has slowly gravitated back to two separate nations, divided by economics and by color. Fifty-four years after Topeka versus the Board of education, the schools in the north (which is supposed to be the more tolerant and enlightened part of this nation) are more segregated than they were in Mississippi in 1954. And just last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court (with its Black Justice voting for it), declared the 1954 Decision all but null and void. And although the gap between white women and white men’s salaries is often raised as the ultimate symbol of today’s discrimination (white women earn only about 75% of what white men earn), no one talks about the fact that consistently since 1945, when such statistics were first tracked, black family income as a percent of white family income, is still essentially the same as it was then: about 54-56% of what white families earn. This is a staggering statistic that even Obama's election to the Presidency cannot mask or overcome. Moreover, despite anti-discrimination laws, and much talk about racial progress, there is still much rigid white resistance to black equality across the board, not to mention resistance to black integration into the mainstream.

Thus, black tokenism apparently is not the answer to America’s race problem. Whether or not blacks are appointed to the highest offices in the land, racism in the U.S. is still a profound systemic problem. In order for it to be solved, those who resist change, who quietly, privately, and passive aggressively, retard racial progress, must eventually be called to account. They must accept the fact that they are going to have to be inconvenienced in order to solve this ugly blight and stain on the American character and conscious. Or else, sooner rather than later, and in the midst of the ashes of another racial explosion, we may look back on Obama’s election (as we now do of the 60s) as the halcyon days of race in America.


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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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