- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

When Barack Obama raises his hand and takes the oath of office as the nation’s first black president - 80 years and five days after the birth of America’s most famous civil rights leader - he’ll validate that Martin Luther King’s dream was more than an ideal.

The goal of complete racial harmony, though, remains to be fulfilled.

The inauguration Tuesday “documents the advances brought by the civil rights movement 20, 30 years ago,” said Shelby Steele, a black conservative scholar with the Hoover Institution. “But four centuries of racial depression and the manipulation of white guilt by blacks are not going to just dissipate because there is a black guy in the White House.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a liberal, agrees. “We still have some challenges,” said Mr. Sharpton, adding that King’s dream was not only to have a black American president one day. “It was also about changing the lives of all Americans. We’re not there yet.”

From the political right and the left, pride runs deep when it comes to Mr. Obama’s historic rise to power.

“I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. To most African-Americans, it’s just unimaginable,” said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a deputy campaign director for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s failed presidential bids in 1984 and 1988.

That euphoria, however, will turn quickly to anticipation as Mr. Obama is forced to demonstrate his ability to tackle the global economic crisis, two wars and other thorny issues he inherits.

“The most important thing to me is that he is a competent president,” Mr. Steele said. “These are challenging times, and I’m not going to burden him with racial symbolism.”

Just a few decades ago, King and others marched in places such as Selma, Ala., not just for the right to eat at diners and go to movie theaters but for the very right to vote.

Little did they know that 40-plus years later that vote would elect a black president to be sworn in within 24 hours of a federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Some call it coincidence,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I call it providence.”

But is America at last transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” as King once dreamed? In other words, have we arrived at a post-racial America?

“No” is the resounding response from those same black civil rights leaders and scholars who say racial attitudes, gaps in education and wealth, and guilt remain major obstacles to a post-racial America.

Mr. Walters would like to see systemic improvements, including government programs that invest in the black lower and middle classes to help close the gap between blacks and whites in terms of health insurance, homeownership and education.

“It’s really about getting back to the unfinished business of the civil rights movement,” he said. “Students are dropping out of higher education because they can’t afford it. … We can’t go on like this. We have to start investing in people.”

Without closing these gaps and providing equal opportunity, there is no chance for a post-racial America - even with a black president, he said.

“These are not normal times,” Mr. Walters said. “Given the tremendous pressure Barack Obama will be under, I don’t know how much he can do.”

Education is also at the top of Mr. Sharpton’s agenda for a more just and equal America.

On Monday at 11:30 a.m., Mr. Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other black leaders are scheduled to celebrate Martin Luther King Day with a rally and education forum at Cardozo Senior High School in the District.

“The education gap is the same today as it was in 1954,” said Mr. Sharpton, who favors more teacher accountability and school choice, such as charter schools for inner-city children.

“You know, when I criticize police unions, I am a liberal,” Mr. Sharpton said. “And when I criticize teachers unions, then what am I?”

A conservative? “Yes, but the reality is we must hold people accountable,” he said.

Mr. Steele, on the other hand, said the future of a post-racial America hinges not on institutions or government programs but on individuals. Whites must find a way to overcome the racial guilt that prompts them to implement what he calls misguided programs such as affirmative action, he said.

“Affirmative action doesn’t help black people; it stigmatizes them,” Mr. Steele said. “It’s about white guilt. It’s a way for whites to document that they’re not racist.”

On that note, is there nothing to celebrate on a seemingly monumental day - the eve of the nation’s first black presidency? Yes, there is, the three men say separately - but they also caution that Americans must be realistic.

“If we project unrealistic expectations, we’re going to be disappointed,” Mr. Steele said. “I think it will be a healthy thing when people realize that Obama can’t wave a magic wand and make four centuries of depression disappear.

“It’s naivete - the place that symbolism has in America, the way it accounts for reality.”

But he acknowledges that a black presidency is something “America should be proud of after centuries of torture.”

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