Make no mistake about it: Race still matters. But it matters less than it did. That’s a good thing to acknowledge as Americans honor the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and mark one year in office of the first black (or biracial, if you’d rather) president.
Dr. King lived through the Depression. Its hardships affected him deeply. If he were around today he might be mostly talking about the great recession that’s hit Americans of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Perhaps he would question whether the unbridled excesses of capitalism that led to Wall Street’s collapse were the best means for building a sound economy for everyone.
Despite tough times that find African-Americans out of work at a much higher rate (16 percent) than Americans in general (10 percent), blacks have become much more optimistic about the future during the past year, according to a new poll.
Remarkably, 39 percent of African-Americans say the “situation of black people in this country” is better than it was five years earlier. That’s up from just 20 percent who said that in a similar 2007 poll.
That may be largely because of the “Obama effect” – the idea that a black can become president, according to Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the poll. What’s more, a majority of blacks (53 percent) now expect that life for them will be better in the future. In 2007, only 44 percent saw a brighter future.
Some in the black community have grumbled that Mr. Obama has paid less attention to the special needs of his ethnic group than he should. But African-Americans in general remain overwhelmingly supportive of the president. In the recent flap over insensitive comments by Senate majority leader Harry Reid, no uproar came from prominent African-Americans – except GOP chairman Michael Steele, who called for Senator Reid to step down.
There’s no blueprint for being a minority-race president. Last summer, Obama hastily jumped to the defense of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in his dispute with white Cambridge, Mass., police officer James Crowley, who had arrested Mr. Gates on the mistaken assumption that he was breaking into a house – actually Gates’s own residence.
Yet Obama quickly reassumed his impartial role as president of all Americans by inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House and by urging that the unfortunate incident become a “teachable moment” on race relations.
Abraham Lincoln famously said that the dead at Gettysburg honored the ground far more than could any words from him. Similarly, the very presence of the Obama family in the White House speaks more strongly about the state of race relations in America in 2010 than anything a speech writer or editorialist could put into words.
Easily the most memorable remarks on race this president has made came in March 2008, while he was still a candidate. There Obama tried to merge the ideal of America’s "more perfect union" with the reality of its multicultural heritage. Americans “may have different stories, but we hold common hopes,” he said. “We all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
For African-Americans, he continued, this meant “binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare and better schools and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans – the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.”
He concluded: “What we know – what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation....
“In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper.”
Those are words Martin Luther King Jr. surely would have endorsed.