The recent faux-controversy over the legitimacy of President Barack Obama's citizenship has got me to thinking even more than usual about matters of racial justice, social inequities and the realities of 21st century American values. My inner discourse on these matters has ranged everywhere on the emotional spectrum from despondence to unbridled optimism. My emotional and intellectual volatility on the issue of race relations is due to my tremendous empathy for those affected by the double-headed pandemic of discrimination and intolerance.
As most of us know, a certain unnamed buffoon has been making a lot of noise lately about the citizenship status of President Obama and demanding that the president produce his birth certificate to prove that he is in fact a natural-born citizen. Much to my dismay, Mr. Obama descended to the depths of the levels in which the aforementioned buffoon has established pernanent residency and publicly produced an official copy of his long-form birthcertificate. Controversy solved right? Nope. Next (originating from the same idiotic source) came challenges to the academic record of the president which, by every measure imaginable, is unquestionably impressive and remarkable. And in yet another conspiracy theory emanating from the vast expanse of ultra right-wing delusions comes the accusation the President Obama did not author his two critically acclaimed memoirs but rather that it was done by Bill Ayers. It is difficult to pinpoint which of these three exercises in lunacy is least credible and most devoid of factual grounding; when taken as a package deal however they do shed a bit of light on a disturbing pattern gaining momentun in what passes for public discourse today.
All three of the ludicrous charges listed above carry with them racially charged undercurrents - doubts over President Obama's citizenship ("Come on, look at him!"), questioning his academic record ("Come on, look at him! Obviously he was the beneficiary of 'affirmative action' and therefor undeserving.") and of course, in the fundamentally backwards logic of those making these accusations, it appears to be unfathomable that a black man could have composed not one but two brilliant memoirs. The individual mentioned above, and the growing population that he speaks for and to, are engaging in a classic case of race-baiting which is simultaneously illuminating a vile reality about this country.
The ugly truth is that we are not in the midst of a "post-racial" or "color blind" revolution in American popular society; in fact, it seems as though racial tensions and discontents were merely flowing beneath a thin facade of increased harmony, waiting for a galvanizing event to act as the catalyst for renewed animosity. That event came in 2008 with the election of a black man to the highest office in this country, perhaps in this world. At the time I was (along with many other observers) in a state of euphoria with the apparent death of racial intolerance, heralding the dawn of a new age of unity and cooperation. Less than a month after President Obama was sworn into office in January of 2009 the Tea Party, which has engaged in many public displays of overt racism, held its first rally and has continued to hold numerous rallies and protests ever since. The dream of a more accepting and tolerant America hadn't lasted very long.
The reaction to the election of President Obama in combination with some disturbing facts about the plight of the black community in this country points to the disheartening realization that pervasive disparities, distinguished largely by race, still exist to an alarming degree. African-Americans compose 13.6% (42 million) of the American populace and over a quarter of them (25.8%) live in poverty. The median household income among the African-American population is $35,575 as compared to the national median of $52,029. The unemployment rate among African-Americans (16.6%) is nearly twice the national average and African-American males comprise 35.4% of the 2.1 million Americans who are currently incarcerated. According to the Department of Justice, African-American males are six times more likely to end up in jail or prison than their white counterparts and only 18% of all African-Americans achieve a bachelor's degree or higher. Other metrics, such as obesity and hypertension rates, highlight persistent health issues in the black community in addition to the pervasive economic and social obstacles mentioned above.
The circumstances faced by the black community paint a bleak picture for the prospects for a more harmonious and integrative America. The election of President Obama served in some part to awaken latent racial intolerance and animus among some segments of the American citizenry when it should have had the opposite effect. I am however optimistic for two reasons. The first of which is that high school dropout rates among African-Americans are dropping: 80% of African-Americans have achieved their high school diploma which is a marked improvement over where that rate has been in the not-so-distant past. In my opinion, the first step in the process of increased enfranchisement and greater political influence is education. I firmly believe in the old axiom about knowledge being power.
The second cause of cautious optimism is the very fact that posterity will now have to recognize and report that a black man did in fact hold the most important position in the world. Children who are just now beginning or will soon begin their education will be introduced to the American presidency and American history as a whole with the inclusion of a black man occupying the White House. To put it in terms of one of my other passions (baseball) Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of American political history. Just as it is now normal and uneventful to see baseball players of all colors and backgrounds, future generations will no longer find it unimaginable for a non-white person to be the leader of the free world.
Similar to the evolution of baseball however, just because one exceptional individual has forced a paradigm shift does not mean that everybody is ready to accept that change just yet. It will be a long and difficult process - as are all important social changes - and not all people will cooperate. The hope lies in what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the "better angels of our nature" winning out over the ugly truths that plague us. Only time will tell.
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