We reclaimed our country last Tuesday. The air was laced with giddiness. It’s not only because we were at last emerging from an abusive relationship with the Bush Administration, but also because we had breached a racial barrier as old as the Republic.
As New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it, “the festive scenes of liberation that Dick Cheney had once imagined for Iraq were finally taking place — in cities all over America.”
But as last week’s episode of “South Park” attests, our nation is still in the same ditch it was in the day before. Even though Obama has been elected, America is not cleansed of its racial history or conflicts.
While Obama’s victory marks a huge leap in defying racial prejudice, racial privilege is far from dead and gone.
We still have a virtually all-white party as one of our two most powerful political organizations. There hasn’t been a single black Republican governor, senator or House member in six years.
Nationwide, black men of all ages are incarcerated at more than seven times the rate of white men, according to the Justice Department. Shocking as such a national average is, it masks even worse racial disparities in individual states. In 13 states, black men are incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate of white men. No state is free of significant disparities.
As Obama said in a landmark speech on race last March, “Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.”
Early in the campaign, black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.”
He is right, of course. Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. America can no sooner disown its racist legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag. But in the journey toward a more just, prejudice-free, and truly democratic society, Obama’s election constitutes a milestone that deserves more celebrations. And many more toasts.