The past year has provided the world with the opportunity to see whether or not the potent symbolism of Barack Obama’s inauguration has translated into reality. This is particularly so today, a federal holiday in the US to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, on the subject of race relations – a topic so fundamental to America’s history and one unmistakably tied to its present day social, economic and political reality.
According to a recent Pew poll, America’s race relations are in better shape now than they were two years ago. African-Americans are assessing race relations and prospects for the future more positively than at any time in the past 25 years.
Yet others might argue the contrary, that a number of high profile race-related incidents over the past year suggest a lack of progress. Henry Louis Gates, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, tea-party goers, the New York Post and, most recently, Senator Harry Reid are just some of those who have been involved in controversial events which have led to questions, criticism and scrutiny about exactly how much racial progress has been made under Obama’s presidency.
Yet, expectations that President Obama could single-handedly overturn centuries-old individual prejudices and systematic racial issues – particularly in the space of one year – was merely setting him up for failure. There have been enough successful and powerful Americans of colour to suggest that one person’s acheivement will not radically alter the day-to-day lives of the rest. Nor should it be left to one person to bear that responsibility. In fact, by adopting the notion that casting a vote is enough and that all subsequent efforts are to be made by the president and his administration, people are absolved of their own responsibility for creating a society that works well for everyone.
The most important question now, going forward, is how to get to the root of the matter – so that the situations which lead to higher than average unemployment rates for minorities, even when there is no recession, and disparities in healthcare, education, economics and elsewhere no longer exist. It is here that an opportunity for something new lies.
Since President Obama’s inauguration, there have been repeated calls for more talk about race as the key to solving issues and improving race relations. However, if there’s anything the past year has taught us, it is that Americans already talk a great deal about that topic. If talking about race were the only, or best, way to end race-related issues, they would surely have ended a long time ago.
Racism – indeed, any –ism – and race-related issues arise from a fundamental, and often subconscious, belief that people are unequal. When Martin Luther King gave his famous “Dream” speech in 1963, he proclaimed his desire to see an America which would hold “self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
Unfortunately having an African-American president does not mean that all people believe that “all men are created equal.” Indeed, some of the views that have been expressed since the inauguration suggest that there are those who clearly still see the president himself as not being equal.
If President Obama is to really fulfil Dr King’s dream, and to make a real difference in his presidency when it comes to America’s race relations, it will be by having the notion that “all men are created equal” come to life as an integral part of American beliefs, such that all America’s systems – educational, economic and the rest – continue to change to reflect that. Until that happens, it is likely that we will see a continuation of disparities that will limit not only minorities but America as a whole.