After last week’s historic election, I asked my Race and Ethnic Relations class, “Will the presidency of Barack Obama have any impact on racial division in America?” The students discussed the question intensely for over an hour.
Some of my African American students worried that racial tensions could heighten. They suspected some whites might start thinking, The blacks have taken over, and then push back.
Others thought that, while Obama would have a tough time making any significant changes through legislation, he could model and inspire racial togetherness, making it the hip and right thing to do. Perhaps some lasting changes could result.
Still others thought he could make change, but only indirectly. For example, he could move legislation through that expanded opportunities for an affordable college education. This could, in the long run, produce greater equality and reduce tensions.
They are, I think, all correct. Some of each of these will happen. We won’t know the end result for a while, but we can be hopeful today.
Here’s why I’m hopeful. We have an incoming president who can fully identify with being a racial minority, with being biracial, with being poor, with being raised in a single-parent home. He knows the difficulties such life positions present. And he knows that, with the right combination of opportunities and social connections, they need not hold a person down.
The struggle will be a difficult one, for sure. Change is always messy and hard. To be president of the United States pushes you toward the middle, as you attempt to represent millions of people with different views. President Obama will be busy with foreign-policy issues, the economy, health care, and budgets.
But, one must believe, the core of his being will not let those issues be his only issues. He will care about the state of race relations and inequality in the United States. He will want to see change for his daughters, for the urban neighborhoods he used to serve as a community organizer, and for his nation.
The realities of the presidential office may mean he does not address issues of racial division as aggressively as some might hope. But let us be patient. The realities of his life — and of the American condition — will make the issue too important for him to ignore. There is hope.
Editor’s Note: Now let us know what you think? Will an Obama presidency improve race relations in America? Why or why not?
I agree, but with much reservation. I grew up in Chicago, and recall when Harold Washington was elected mayor. It was the first time I voted. I had such joy and expectation as I am sure for many first time voters today. The fact I later I understood, Mayor Washington had to acclimate to a system that had momentum going in one direction. I don’t doubt President (Elect) Obama brings the intellectual capital, and the visceral commitment because of his life experience to engage this issue, but he is fighting a system more sophisticated, complex and toxic than Chicago. I am more concerned that he has the spiritual nurturing, and prayer for himself and his family’s wellbeing. This economy may not afford him the time or opportunity to address it as much as he wants. I just recall reading and listening to people who were around Dr. King. The issues use raise are hard. Especially, when we have such factions still erect with the church community.
I hate to write this, because I want the euphoria to stay. I do have immense respect in President Obama, but he also deserves my prayers.
Thanks for sharing that. The comment above was along some of the lines I was thinking. Washington was one of the first to come to mind, but when you think about other large cities (Minneapolis, Atlanta, etc) that have had a African American Mayor, I’m curious of how much political or social change has come from those historic shifts. I’m not making a statement one way or the other, cause I really have no clue, but I wonder if anyone has done research or reports. It might lend insight into what the next four years could look like.
Contrary to the headlines last Wednesday, racism and racial barriers still exist in the United States! Racism is so insidious in our culture and society that I need to hold tightly on to hope wherever it may be found and there is hope in Barack Obama’s victory. I agree with Prof. Emerson that President Elect Obama will have to address issues of race in his presidency, and only pray that he shows the kind of insight, leadership and courage he displayed when addressing race in his landmark speech last spring.
I’m looking forward the euphoria that Jimmy mentions wearing off so we can get on with “the new normal” under President Obama. My suspicion is that some folks will try to use his presidency as an excuse for never having to “talk about race” again, even though we still have a lot of lingering issues that need open and honest talking about. While I hope the Obama presidency will help erase a lot of the remaining racial stereotypes and create a positive picture of people of color, I’m hoping it doesn’t diminish the sense of urgency that still needs to surround our national conversations about race, diversity, and justice.
I am not sure if I want the euphoria to end entirely, but I am aware that President Elect Obama has so much, that pragmatically I am not sure if he will address any racial/ethnic issues of our nation till the economic issue is resolved or calmed down from a category 4 hurricane to a tropical storm.
In some ways, he cannot avoid it, because so many people of color, not just black, expect him to address it. The conservatives are waiting for him to address it to further hurl accusations at him of communism, socialism, etc.
I have looked at some of his plans, i really hope he can galvanize people who will address this issue, and have people of faith participating, specifically Christian. Christian, i.e. evangelicals, continues to polarize this issue as seen by the majority of evangelicals that supported McCain.
Nonetheless, we need some more thoughtful, and creative ways that is not anachronistic, but open to current trends to address this important issue.
I think that the Obama Presidency will improve race relations in general, but not directly. I think that his first priorities will be to address the issues of the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a host of other foreign and domestic topics. I agree with Brother McGee that these issues need to be downgraded from hurricane status to that of a tropical storm first. On my site I wrote that I think the mere fact of Obama being elected has functioned to instill hope for a wide range of minorities. In my humble opinion, I think this restoration of hope is one of the necessary first steps towards improved race relations.
I believe the race relations issue among the 30 and below age group is practically nonexistant. The race relations issue will not be “solved” but will die from attrition – those who hold foolish beliefs will simply die away and their ideas with them. It will be a long slow process. Maybe the Rapture will happen before this process is completed. Whenever I get the feeling that race is no longer an issue in America, someone calls me or another brother a nigger over my CB, and I return to reality. The Obama presidency will have no effect — unless he “crashes and burns”. Then many will say “I told you so!” I did not vote for him, but now that he has been elected I hope Obama becomes the greatest president this nation has ever had.