The election of Barack Obama gave hope to millions of African Americans and Progressives in America that the first black president meant we were entering a new era in American politics, an era of heightened tolerance and racial acceptance. The euphoria many felt in the aftermath of his election reflected the yearning to move closer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous prophecy of that “day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” For a brief moment, the American people had hope that dramatic change might truly come.
In the aftermath of the election of the first African-American president, media pundits had a field day with the speculation that this election would be the first gesture in a “post-racial society.” The broad bi-racial coalition that elected Obama made it seem briefly that slowly, step-by-step, minorities (blacks especially) were easing toward inclusion and real acceptance in America. But far from ushering in a new age of hope and equality, the election of Barack Obama seems instead to have unleashed the worst in American politics. Was there a true shift in the American heart toward inclusiveness? While the picture currently is very bleak, it is important to withhold judgment until the fog of partisan politics diminishes.
Much of what we have seen over the last several months has been a carefully orchestrated opposition to Obama and any pursuit of a post-racial America. This is not a natural reaction to the historic election of a black president. Even so, Obama has been remarkably successful, demonstrating just what a threat his legislative agenda is.
Those of us who were on the front lines of the civil rights actions of the early sixties remember how the likes of Orval Faubus, George Wallace, and Ross Barnett then asserted that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), violated states’ rights. We remember Gov. Wallace standing on the steps of the Capitol of Alabama ordering the state troopers to close all the schools in the state rather than submit to court-ordered integration mandated by Brown. Today, these assertions of states’ rights, and the rash of Tenth Amendment sovereignty legislation proposed by nearly twenty states, are really an effort to repeal integration and empower white communities. It was Gov. Wallace himself who said that he should not have said, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” but rather, “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!”
The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution broadly states that all rights not allocated to the federal government are reserved to the states. At nearly every conservative venue, the “states’ rights” rallying cry is being touted as the antidote to an expansionist federal government. Even though we fought a grotesquely bloody war over this very issue 150 years ago, some of today’s candidates for public office are emboldened to talk seriously about secession as a viable option, and a disturbing percentage of the electorate snaps it up like political opium. A refusal to listen to other points of view or any information that might conflict with the party line characterizes this modern iteration of the states’ rights movement.
For those of us dedicated to the cause of civil rights, the increasing calls for states’ rights are code words for a direct attack on the progress African Americans have made during the last fifty years. None of us for a minute thinks that if blacks had to go before the electorate of each state, bowing to state sovereignty, as the gay community is being forced to do to achieve its civil rights, we would today have the freedoms we possess. We are, as a result of this resurgence of white bigotry, in my opinion, at the greatest racial divide since the Civil War.
This nightmare of racial prejudice has been purposefully reawakened because the American presidency, historically owned by white men, was suddenly usurped by a black man. He may be, as he likes to say, the American Dream come true. He may be a truly decent man, a loving father and loyal husband, and a brilliant Constitutional Law professor. But he is also a real threat to the illusion of white power continuity. As the most powerful man in the world, President Obama represents that which should not be: a black man in the seat of white authority and power. The white power brokers have come to understand that the election of Barack Hussein Obama, far from being the beginning of a post-racial society, was a liberal coup d’état. Compounding this conundrum, it is now clear that white society understands that it is fast becoming the American minority. Demographics are trending toward a white minority by 2040. Far from being emblematic of the dream of post-racial politics, for the white power brokers, Obama is the harbinger of an unimaginable minority status.
As blacks, we have witnessed, endured, and learned to flourish in the aftermath of the worst that the Anglo-European patriarchs have inflicted on us across five centuries. Perhaps as the white population loses its dominant majority status, there will be an inevitable affirmation of a less racially divided America. But, as we have seen, that inevitability will not come without determined resistance.
We in the civil rights movement have met such resistance before, and we must continue to meet it with firm resolve and insistence that the American legal system do what is right to protect the freedoms of all Americans regardless of race.
We should not despair that we are not likely to see a post-racial America in our lifetimes. We must inspire our youth and rally our forces with truth, faith, courage, and strategic wisdom to fight back. I was in Memphis on a cold overcast day April 8, 1968 at an outdoor memorial rally in front of City Hall for Dr. King, assassinated just four days earlier. Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers leader, took to the podium: “Wipe away the tears,” he exhorted, “there is work to be done.”