- The Washington Times - Monday, February 1, 2010


Barack Obama has now served one year as America’s first black president — an unmistakable sign that the country has taken an astonishing step away from its history of slavery and institutionalized racism.

Equally instructive, however, just a fortnight after Martin Luther King Jr. Day and on the cusp of Black History Month, is the work that remains to be done.

In the afterglow of Mr. Obama’s election, an overwhelming majority of the country believed that race relations would dramatically improve. According to a Gallup poll the day after Mr. Obama won the presidency, 67 percent of Americans felt that racism would eventually be eradicated — that’s 10 percentage points higher than at any other point in the decades that Gallup has been polling the issue. Indeed, most Americans surveyed said that Mr. Obama’s election represented the most important milestone for blacks in the last 100 years. Pundits wasted no time proclaiming that America had finally achieved a post-racial society. The mood of the country was downright euphoric.

A little more than one year later, Americans’ opinion on race relations has changed. According to a new Gallup poll, the number of people who say racial problems will be worked out has dropped back to its pre-election level. Notably, the number of people who say race will always be a problem has risen from 30 percent to 40 percent; and one in five persons surveyed actually thought race relations had worsened. Perhaps most striking is that number of Americans reporting optimism regarding race relations — 56 percent — was approximately the same as in 1963. Bottom line: Most Americans feel the same about race relations in this country now, as they did before Mr. Obama was elected.

So what happened to all of that hope and optimism that greeted the Obama election — and what does it say about the country’s evolving dialogue on race? It seems that a majority of black Americans do not feel that the election of Mr. Obama has substantively changed their daily lives. While there is a consensus that seeing a black man in the White House is inspiring, there is little to point to in terms of genuine gains in racial equality. In other words, while the election of Mr. Obama provided an emotional boost, it does not seem to have dramatically impacted the underlying dynamics between white and black Americans.

In less than one year, the possibility of electing a black president has given way to a sinking reality: Very little has actually changed for the average black person. America’s legacy of racial injustices remains evident in the racial education and economic gap. Segregation remains a problem throughout America. Today, public schools are more segregated than during the Jim Crow era. Nearly one out of every four black families lives below the poverty line compared to just 6 percent of white families. Blacks were particularly hard hit by the economic downturn. More than twice as likely as whites to receive subprime loans, black families are now losing their homes at an alarming rate. Substandard education begets poverty begets violence. The Justice Department estimates that 32 percent of black men will go to prison at some point in their lives, compared with just six percent of white males.

If you ask most blacks how they feel about Mr. Obama, they are understandably proud. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama’s election has instilled a sense of “pride” that gives American blacks hope and inspiration. But if you ask whether Mr. Obama’s election will reduce the foreclosure rate, or the racial economic gap, or keep cops from beating on them, they say “of course not.” Daily life is not changing just because there is a black face in the White House. And in some ways, it may be getting worse.

I worry that Mr. Obama’s victory could undermine the push for equality by creating a sense of passivity amongst both black and white voters. Though there is no way to prove this, I suspect that much of Mr. Obama’s crossover appeal resides in the fact that he seems safe to white voters. Like Bill Cosby or former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Mr. Obama is the perfect American black to overcome latent biases — a homogenized upper-class person who seems to carry around none of the anger for centuries of racial injustices. This is the subliminal appeal to Mr. Obama’s presidential candidacy: he seems to represent the exception to every black stereotype. Mr. Obama presented the white voting populace with a unique opportunity to vote for someone who evoked none of the black anger, while at the same time offering them atonement for centuries of racial inequality. By pulling a lever, white America collectively congratulated itself for moving beyond its ugly past. At the same time, American blacks seem to be regarding the mere fact of a black face in the White House as some sign of fundamental change. Both views are naive. A lot of work needs to be done to root out the systemic racism that remains in our society. No one success story — no matter how inspiring — should distract us from the systemic racism that still exists.

So, what lessons can we draw from this historical moment? It could very well be that Mr. Obama’s election signals a decline in individual racism, but not systemic racism — the inequities that are entrenched in our social institutions. For example, the best public school systems are located in the most expensive communities. Poor people — mostly of color — are priced out of these communities. Consequently, public schools are now more segregated than during the Jim Crow era. These types of inequities may not be the result of individual bigotry, but they are certainly hangover from a shared history of racial and economic segregation.

What the success of Mr. Obama tells us is that our primary concern can no longer be with individual bigotry. We must shift our focus to the systemic issues that have resulted from a shared history of slavery. The crucial first step is realizing that the lessons of liberalism no longer apply. The dialogue in the black community should not be about getting a seat at the table; it should be about owning the table. We need to educate ourselves on how to build wealth in our communities because the mere fact that the president is black doesn’t mean that our lives will change. The key to overcoming systemic racism is to rely on ourselves instead of the government. Without this crucial first step, the dialogue on race relations in this country will remain mired in accusation and defensiveness — and the lingering systemic issues will remain unchanged.

“The Armstrong Williams Show” is broadcast on XM Satellite’s Power 169 channel from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights.

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