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Friday, November 28, 2008

We Have Overcome???: Illusions of Transcendence

On the night of Barack Obama's victory speech in Grant Park, there was a young man holding op a sign that read "We have Overcome." With all of this talk of Barack's candidacy being a "post-racial" candidacy, it easy to see how people are confused about how far we have come. The simple truth is I do not recall Barack saying that his presidency would end racism in the United States. "Racial transcedence" and "post racial" are creations of pundits and the media. On the other hand, being an African American and be elected to the Presidency of the United States, heretofore a white nation protecting the interests of whites, is of historical significance and represents a new epoch in United States. Having said that, electing a black man president does not automatically change the reality for blacks and whites in America. As Algernon Austin points out below the poverty remains, as does the racialization of crime in America and so many other inequities. Electing Barack Obama, a community organizer and one committed to helping average citizens and the poor, was a major step forward on behalf of the people, including black people, but not the solution. Organize we must to take advantage of this major turning point in America. RGN

Does Obama's Success Mean Blacks Have Overcome?
by Algernon Austin (posted on

It has been wonderful to see people of all races celebrate the victory
of Barack Obama. His advance does represent an important step forward
for African Americans. But those who take his victory to mean that
blacks have overcome are seeing the world through very rose colored glasses.

Obama's victory comes on the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission
report on the riots of the 1960s. That report can be used to assess how
far blacks in general have come as opposed to how much one black elected
official has achieved. In 1968, the Kerner Commission identified the
criminal justice system, employment, housing and education as areas of
significant black-white disparities that needed good public policy and
large public investments to move us to an equal and integrated society.
Sadly, many of the disparities the Commission highlighted 40 years ago
remain with us today.

There may be less of the day-to-day police brutality that led to riots
in several cities in the 1960s, but relations between blacks and the
police are still not good. The cases of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and
others still cause many blacks to fear the police rather than see the
police as a force promoting safety and security. Further, many also see
our criminal justice system as a profoundly anti-black institution. For
example, The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published an investigative
report [link:] showing
that for similar drug offenses blacks in Cleveland were more likely to
be incarcerated than whites. Even in some cases where whites possessed
more drugs and had more serious criminal records they received more
leniency than blacks. There is much more that needs to be done in the
area of criminal justice before we can say that blacks have overcome.

In 1968, blacks were about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
In 2008, blacks are about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
The crisis joblessness in black communities remains severe. Improving
the educational outcomes of blacks will help in this area, but there
remains significant anti-black bias in the labor market. My current
research shows that while college-educated blacks have similar
employment rates as whites, as one moves down the educational ladder the
racial disparities grow rapidly. The black-white disparity is most
severe for male high school dropouts. For some reason, employers see
white male high school dropouts as much more desirable than black male
high school dropouts. In a color-blind world, one high school dropout
would be as good or as bad as the next, but we don't live in that world
yet. In the American labor market, it helps to be white especially if
one is less-educated.

Our schools and neighborhoods were largely separate and unequal in 1968,
and they are still separate and unequal today. Barack Obama served
Illinois as a senator. The Illinois Education Research Council has done
important work on race and teacher quality [PDF:] in
that state. The Council ranked all high schools by teacher quality. It
found that nearly half of all black high school students were in the
schools in the bottom 25 percent of the teacher-quality rankings. Only
about one-sixth of white students were in these low teacher-quality
schools. We can't say that we have overcome when black students are still
segregated into the worse schools in America.

We have not overcome, but it is important to also acknowledge the progress
that blacks have made. We know that blacks are not as educated as we would
like them to be, but we should also acknowledge that the black population
is more educated than it has ever been. In 2006, the year of the most
recent data from the Digest of Education Statistics [link:],
9.6 percent of the bachelor's degrees given nationally went to blacks.
This rate was up from 7.9 percent in 1996, and it was the highest level on
record. There is a substantial number of blacks in the American middle and
upper class, and a large number of black elected officials. These are some
of the positive developments that we have seen since the Kerner Commission

Obama's victory represents a significant advance for America on its path
to racial equality. But we aren't there yet. The Kerner Commission report
reminds us that while we have made great strides, there is still a long
way to go. As Miriam Makeka sang in Portuguese--"a luta continua"--the
struggle continues.

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