Barack Obama’s inauguration prompted the shedding of many tears—most by Americans ecstatic at seeing a day they never thought would come, and some, no doubt, by the relative few who feared the day a black man would arrive as master of the White House.
Bright, talented, graceful, and supremely self-confident, Obama has vindicated all the efforts of King, Randolph, Rustin, Marshall, Wilkins, Lewis, Jackson, and the myriad others of lesser fame who marched, protested, sat-in, freedom-rode, and litigated so that the walls of segregation might come tumbling down. But he has also vindicated Warren and Johnson—especially Johnson—and Powell and O’Connor and untold others who legislated and implemented and adjudicated away segregation, and enforced policies that allowed people like the new president and his wife and thousands of others to acquire the kind of education that their forebears were denied.
And so, now that the United States has its first black president, what next?
Obviously it doesn’t mean the end of racial politics as we’ve come to know it. The machinations that led to Roland Burris’s appointment to replace Obama as junior senator from Illinois demonstrated that. It was, after all, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) who first played “the race card” publicly, but his play was set up by the disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Many white politicians, no less than black ones, have an investment in the game as it has been played thus far, so the rules of racial politics won’t change easily. Nor should they—at least not entirely. Racism may have receded as a force in everyday life in America, but it has not disappeared, and the distorting effects of our racial past persist in many areas. Obama himself made note of that in his pivotal speech in Philadelphia last March—his so-called race speech.
Addressing the white community, Obama said:
The path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds—by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil-rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.
But it was what Obama told the black community that signaled something new was in the offing:
For the African-American community, that path [to a more perfect union] means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—to the larger aspirations of all Americans—the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives—by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
When Obama recently met with the editorial board of the Washington Post, he made it clear that his speech was not delivered simply to get through a political crisis. Rather, he sees his election to the presidency as an opportunity to change the nature of discussion and policy on race in America. Using education as an example, he told the editors, “There’s an opportunity for me to speak about the obligations of parents and of students in ramping up our educational performance.” And, alluding to his race, his background in community organizing and urban issues, and his status as the leading voice in the African-American community, he added, “I maybe can say some things that previous presidents could not have said, particularly to inner-city Americans and African-American fathers.”
Barack Obama has come to the presidency with a different approach to America’s racial agenda. An old order is passing away, albeit slowly. And a new order—its general outlines discernible but its details still unclear—is being born.