Over the past few weeks, youve probably seen a few editorials in various publications trumpeting Barack Obamas election as a harbinger of the end of racism in America. Since we have elected a black man president, the argument goes, discrimination in this country is a shadow of the serious problem it once was. And certainly, it is true that since the Civil Rights Movement, our society has made tremendous strides towards tolerance, reconciliation and the attenuation of racial stereotypes.
President-elect Obamas victory shattered one the most prominent glass ceilings in the United States. But the larger socioeconomic problems that plagued black Americans on Nov. 3 did not suddenly disappear on Nov. 5. The racism lurking in the shadows of our communities was not extinguished in a flash. Just as contented complacency amongst Obama supporters could derail his tenure in office, the belief that Obamas election signals the final triumph over discrimination will be detrimental to future progress.
Consider the ugly reaction in some circles to Obamas win. While the worlds attention focused on the jubilant throngs packing Grant Park in Chicago, chanting, Yes We Can! some small-minded racists lashed out at the black community after Election Day. In Kentucky, Obama was lynched in effigy. In Idaho, a school bus full of second and third-graders chanted, Assassinate Obama! Right here in Massachusetts, an arsonist burned down an African-American church the day after Election Day. These reprehensible events illustrate the stubborn remnants of bigotry. Though these were isolated incidents, together they speak to broader and more resilient racial disharmony that still lingers in America.
Despite 40 years of major improvements capped off by Obamas historic election, African-Americans as a group still suffer from glaring socioeconomic inequalities. One third of all black children live under the poverty line. About 37 percent of welfare recipients are black; African-Americans comprise 12 percent of the population. Too many inner-city communities suffer from endemic crime, failing schools and lack of economic opportunity. Though most people have only seen ghettos on the news, they are all too real to millions of our fellow citizens. Many of them happen to be black.
I mention these unfortunate facts not to extinguish hope, but to encourage change. Though Obamas victory alone did not immediately resolve these challenges, he will have the chance to tackle them during his presidency. And if his platform is any indication, he hopes to attack poverty, ignorance and lack of economic opportunity head-on. Among other measures, he has promised to increase education funding, invest in job-creation programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods and raise the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit. While these campaign pledges may be transformed or scaled back in the face of wider recession, they reflect Obamas understanding of the problems that disproportionately affect minorities, and his desire to solve them.
Of course, there are limits to what government can do. No law can legislate away ignorance. Thats where we come in as individuals. Latent racism exists in communities all across America, and all of us must resolve to fight bigoted attitudes through our words and our examples. If Obamas historic victory has taught us anything, its that individual actions do matter because there is strength in numbers.
In his last-ever speech, Martin Luther King intoned, Ive been to the mountaintopIve looked over, and I have seen the promised land. Today, many Americans see Barack Obamas election as a sign that our society has reached the metaphorical promised land of racial equality. But only Obamas successes or failures in the coming years will determine his effect on race relations. If weact as though the journey towards equality is already over, we risk wandering the desert instead of fulfilling Dr. Kings noble vision for our country.