HEALING BUT NOT A CURE (from 2009)
This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in February 2009.
Like millions of people around the world, I watched Obama’s inaugural last month and saw the panning shots of huge crowds against the backdrop of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. This image made me think not only about Washington and Lincoln but also Martin Luther King, Jr. and the pictures of the crowds listening to his “I Have a Dream” Speech. The fact that that picture from the center of U.S. capital brings to mind those three names, shows how much the racial divide has affected U.S. history.
There is a line on the Washington Monument about a third of the way up to where the stone slightly changes colors. Tour guides say that this line is there because construction was halted during the Civil War, and builders couldn’t find a perfect match for the original stone when construction resumed. There is something fitting about that. Slavery disfigures Washington’s legacy. Washington made it clear that he knew slavery was wrong, as did Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many other revolutionary leaders. But none of them found a way to put an end to it. Instead, they set us on a path that led to the Civil War, and to the racial divide that Lincoln and King dreamed of resolving.
With the election of Obama, the United States became the first majority-white nation to elect a black chief executive. I think most Americans of both parties are rightly proud of that. Ideally, there should be nothing special about electing a member of a minority group, but for more than two centuries, America chose all of its presidents because they were white men. This time we didn’t. Certainly, our willingness to put a black man in charge indicates that racism isn’t as strong as it was 50 years ago when few whites would accept a black in any position of authority over them. Maybe white racial identity will no never be a prerequisite for political success in the United States.
The election of a black president is probably the most significant in a long series of small victories in the struggle against racism in America, but it doesn’t mean racism is over. Familiar racist incidents are still happening. On election night three white supremacists set fire to a predominately African-American church in Massachusetts. On New Year’s Day, a police officer in California shot an unarmed black man who was being held down on the ground by another police officer. In three states, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, more than 85% of whites voted for the white candidate and more than 85% of blacks voted for the black candidate. Such racially polarized voting has to indicate a continuing problem with racism.
And, as Rev. Joseph Lowery reminded us in his benediction at Obama’s inaugural, oppression isn’t about any one group. It would not be a victory for equality if European-Americans lost all prejudice against African-Americans only to single out some other group such as Arab-Americans, women, gays, Muslims, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. But comparing the United States today to where it was 50 years ago, I think members of almost every group that has suffered from prejudice would say we have made significant progress.
How will we know when we have won? I’ll offer two thoughts. First, ask a member of the oppressed group. Ask many. Don’t tell anybody else when their problems are solved; let them tell you. Second, maybe oppression is over when we have no more ghettos. As long as children still grow up in large concentrations of poverty, despair, and danger, we still have oppressed people whatever their identity.
I think this is why Martin Luther King turned to the Poor People’s Campaign in the last year of his life. Nominal legal equality was largely achieved by the Civil Rights legislation of the mid-60s, and King recognized that economic and social barriers were now the main obstacle to real equality and freedom. King proposed a host of economic reforms, including a basic income guarantee, not to reduce—but to eliminate—poverty, because by then poverty was the greatest source of oppression in America. It remains so today.
I think we can celebrate an important achievement, but we should remember that we have lot more to do to build a society free from oppression.
-Karl Widerquist, Reading UK, January 2009