Obama, Race and a Moment in Time


In the article “Can We? A Brief History of American Racism” (The Nation, Sept. 16, 2009) author and MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris-Perry traced the trajectory of racial justice across the centuries and concluded that setbacks are often but the staging for change.

Writing in the still balmy aftermath of the 2008 landmark presidential election, Harris-Perry took the reader through a sample list of “Yes We Can” American racial and ethnic triumphs: Jefferson’s successful campaign to repeal the anti-Franco Alien and Sedition Acts; the demise of the Know Nothing movement, an1840s nativist neo-putsch against Irish immigration; the reversal of and reparations for the post-Pearl Harbor, en masse internment of Japanese Americans and nationals.

Harris-Perry capped the history lesson by adding to the list of racial watersheds the once unthinkable election of a mixed-race president – a monumental “Yes We Can” cum “Yes We Did” on par with any that came before.

It was a moment in time, widely described as a victory not just for the hopeful but for hope itself.

If in retrospect Harris-Perry sounds overly effusive, she was not alone. An April 2009 New York Times/CBS News poll indicated that some 70% of African Americans believed that the nation was headed in the right direction with regard to race.

But the ensuing four years have taken the air out of our racial mojo. Mere weeks after President Obama’s swearing-in the editorials turned increasingly sober and the surveys increasingly pessimistic, hushing all serious mention of a “post-racial America.”

Speculation abounds as to why such a drastic uptick in ethnic/racial polarization, but whatever’s driving the data, neither the nation nor the Administration should let this turn of events eclipse what is another moment in time: The reelection is won; the second of two foreign wars is winding down; and at least for the moment a fragile economy is holding its own.

What’s needed from the Administration right now is big-picture, long-view leadership and the willingness to spend political capital to:

• Tackle the legislative processes that block progressive efforts for change, especially as they relate to race and ethnicity: corporate funding, gerrymandering, voting practices and the filibuster;

• Make immigration the new health care — pass the Dream Act with the Affordable Care Act as the template;

• Protect low-income people of color and immigrants by adding to the social safety net a national minimum wage;

There are competing priorities. Republican strategists will continue efforts to lure the Administration down all manner of political rabbit holes.

But a president’s political stars have lined up in rare second-term fashion – a true moment in time. What was his first-term setback could well be but his staging for real and lasting change.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2013



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