Moving Forward in a New Era
It is undoubtedly a new era in American racial politics. While most of the old rules still apply, there is a new dynamic in place that will affect the way we (and others) approach racism in our work. THIS WEEK, we offer our analysis of the inauguration with an eye toward the future -- not just of the nation, but of the Race Project and research, commentary and analysis on race generally.
We have no interest in being the sobering voice that kills the collective euphoria that is sweeping the world this week. The symbolic nature of Obama's rise to power is an important element in the struggle for civil rights in and of itself; the fact that he will probably work to move us forward in this area while in office (and, we believe, even more so after he leaves office) is icing on the proverbial cake.
There was a good bit of hyperbole swilling about yesterday, but a lot of it was accurate. This is, indeed, a new era. There has been a shift to the left that is comparable to the shift to the right that occurred when Ronald Reagan took office. If it can be sustained for a similar length of time, there is a real opportunity to socialize a new generation into the core American values of putting others' needs before our own intersets, acknowledging the lasting power of the legacy of slavery and segregation to earnestly combat injustice and inequality, and fostering a genuine belief in the dignity of each individual that translates into equal opportunities for every American child.
That is a tall order, indeed, and one that is in competition with a very troublesome economy and a fractured foreign policy record for the attention of the new president. Not everyone will be pulling in the same direction. Despite impressive nonpartisan demonstrations from the likes of U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and others, there is a small group of folks who could not listen to Obama's speech with an open mind and heart and who have already begun the countdown to the 2012 election (which clearly indicates that they have no plans of helping or even rooting for a successful end to the recession, a smooth withdrawal from Iraq or any of the other plans Obama has for his first term).
In a speech at a forum immediately following the ceremony yesterday, Stephen highlighted three categories of citizens in terms of their response to the historic event. The text of that speech appears below.
Finally, we would very much like to invite TWIR readers to share their thoughts about the inauguration. Where did you watch it and with whom? What did you feel and think? We would love for the comments section to be a repository for the reflections of our readers -- people who are constantly thoughtful about race and politics.
Stephen Maynard Caliendo
Faculty Panel Following Barack Obama’s Inauguration
North Central College
January 20, 2009
Americans’ responses to this event can generally be categorized into three groups:
One group – the smallest – is sickened by today’s events. These folks never wanted to see a minority (a woman or a member of a racial minority group) in the White House.
Another group, comprised of mostly young people, is unimpressed or even frustrated by the attention being paid to Obama’s race. These are folks who consider themselves “post-racial.” They understand that it is a big deal because it is a “first,” but since they are not overtly bigoted (and know very few people who are), they do not fully grasp the significance of the moment.
A third group – by far the largest – is moved beyond words. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, folks in this category reflect upon this, a day many thought they would not see in their lifetime.
The first group, the bigots, will have their day yet. They will not go quietly, though I am confident that they will be rendered increasingly irrelevant. They will devise new ways to couch their racism, deny the impact of our racist history, and make certain that any failing President Obama has will be at least in part attributed to his race. Look for suggestions of an “affirmative action” president from members of this group. They subscribe to the familiar double standard when poor folks need help it’s welfare, but when CEOs need help, it’s government aid. They will use Obama’s presidency as a way to accuse poor people of color of resorting to victimization and laziness – after all, if this black man can be president, racism is clearly not a problem, right?
The second group is, of course, the future. They will push forward with their vision of a color blind society. I would advise members of this group to try to move into the emotional space of the third group today. See it through their eyes. Try to understand that reminding ourselves about the struggle results in two positive outcomes: 1) we are less likely to repeat our same mistakes, and 2) we constantly remember that progress does not equal equality.
It is squarely on the shoulders of the third group to move the significance of this moment forward. For it is you who remember that the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue this morning are lined with the blood of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few, the sweat of Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Morris Dees and Jesse Jackson, again to name but a few, and the tears of Nelson Mandela, Mamie Till, and millions of people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities who have watched as a nation that in so many ways is the beacon of democracy, justice and equality has fallen far too short of those ideals for far too long.
But today is truly a new day. The next generation will not see race as a barrier to the highest office in the land any more than the current generation sees having been divorced or having experimented with drugs – both of which were once deal breakers, but now are quite irrelevant.
The next generation must understand, however, that Barack Obama became president in spite of his race. His election does not make it equally likely for a black man or a woman of any color to be elected to any office, though it makes it more likely. His election does not mean that African American babies born today have the same chance at prosperity as white babies born today. His election does not lift from our collective shoulders the burden of doing the hard work that is necessary to heal the wounds of the past and the present. His election does, however, mean that we are much closer to those goals and to that work.
As someone who has committed his professional life to combating injustice and inequality, I’m very proud to be an American today – more than any other day in my life. I’m proud to share this moment with you, on this campus of this College, which has such a strong commitment to social justice. I’m thankful to those of you who decided to share this moment with us, as well. And I’m looking forward to moving into a new era with an optimistic outlook about moving closer to realizing the potential that is America.