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Monday, August 25, 2008

History to be made this week

Well, here we are on the cusp of an event that not many people predicted. The Democrats will nominate the first African-American candidate for president. This is an historic occasion. Barack Obama will give his convention speech to accept the nomination on the 45th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Folks - 45 years is an instant when you consider that our country hung onto slavery for its first 100 years and took another 100 years for equal/civil rights legislation to be passed. The country has moved at warp speed to come to where we are in this year, in this election, at this convention this week.

Interesting conversation going on around the country. The African-American community is concerned that white America will declare an end to discrimination and racial issues upon the nomination of Sen. Obama. Furthermore, should he be elected, the concern increases that the country will no longer feel that affirmative action is needed, that voting rights no longer need to be monitored, and equal opportunity safeguards will be shelved. After all, if a black man can become the President, then our race relations must be ok. The NYTimes has a good article on this discussion today. read it here.

The discussion made me think of progressive black mayors - notably David Dinkins in NYC and Harold Washington in Chicago. Both were firsts in their city. Both had to deal with the backlash of white voters that basically said - finally, we don't have to talk about race anymore. And when those mayors attempted to provide the support and attention to race-based issues like unemployment and poverty, school performance, and redevelopment - they faced criticism, resistance, and worse. This backlash will be present when Obama is elected. He should prepare for it now.

It's ironic isn't it, that whites would claim "race fatigue" and suggest that the election of a minority to high office will put an end to the issue. Why wouldn't the assumption be, at last we have the courage to step up and deal with race by electing the only person who can directly take it on - a minority president? I imagine that blacks feel they must tread lightly on this issue for fear of scaring off the white voters who fear that a black president will make it open season on whites and give all the resources to blacks and worse. I am quite certain there are white people who will vote for Obama and internalize their understanding of what that means as something like, he will transcend race and it won't be an issue anymore. Because they can't bring themselves to vote for a black candidate in order to support race relations. Because to do so would require admitting that whites could not adequately solve the race issue. Because to do so would require admitting some culpability in discrimination. President Obama will have a tricky road ahead if he is successful in getting elected.

What if this white backlash becomes reality and he is less than successful in his presidency on issues of race relations? Will he be called ineffective by the white media (which woulde really be ironic)? Will he lose favor in the black community for not being able to deliver whatever is assumed he will deliver? Will his election actually retard progress toward racial equality? On these issues, whites must take responsibility and act accordingly. Whites will need to step aside and empower others to lead and make decisions. Whites will need to support Obama's attention to minority issues. Whites will need to back off their expectations that race divisions are over and step up to deal with race relations realistically - meaning take responsibility for the current conditions and make some changes. Who will speak to white America on what they need to do? Will Biden take this on or is his job to tell the lunch-bucket crowd that Obama is ok and he won't mess with the status quo on race relations? The campaign could miss an important opportunity to heal racial divisions, not just pretend they don't exist. Should be interesting.

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