Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Inauguration Day is one day away. I’ll take tomorrow off work to watch the Inauguration, with my spouse and a few close friends. No doubt we will cry. No doubt we will remember forever that moment as history unfolds.
President-elect Barack Obama said this on election night: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
While the dream is very much alive, and a global sense of hope and possibility leaped ahead at warp speed the moment he was elected, all things are not equal — far from it — and I’m worried about white people. I’m worried about us as a large foreboding mass of ignorance about race and racial injustice. I’m worried that too many white people who have little or no experience with all things African-American will believe that racial equality has been achieved in America because we elected a black man president.
I’m worried that conservatives will use Obama’s presidency as a reason to overturn civil-rights laws. It’s already begun with an appeal to overturn the Voting Rights Act. And affirmative action? A new study suggests that if affirmative action were to vanish, the result would be a 35 percent drop in the enrollment of students from underrepresented minority groups at the most competitive colleges — but little gain for white students.
We are far from achieving equality
The truth is, Obama’s election deepens the fissure between those who are achieving and those who are not. We all may be created equal, but we are far from achieving equality.
It starts early. When my kids were in grade school, I remember heading to their school for yet another visit with the principal, because my son had been acting bad again. When I got to school — an arts magnet in the Minneapolis Public Schools — and turned into the school office, I saw my son and four other kids lined up on the bench waiting to see the principal. They were all black, all boys.
I had peeked into the auditorium on my way to the office and saw the school orchestra practicing — about 75 percent girls and about 85 percent white. This is a school that was majority kids of color, and of those kids, majority African-American.
Either you fundamentally believe that black children are somehow less capable than white children, or you know something is wrong with that picture.
Something very wrong
Something was very wrong with that picture — a snapshot among many in my life — and something is very wrong with pictures and statistics about how black people, especially African-American men, are faring across the country.
Here are few gleaned from the African American Men Project in Hennepin County a few years back:
• 28 percent of African-American males enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools graduate in four years
• Young African-American men are twice as likely to die and 27 times more likely to go to jail as are young white men
• Forty-four percent of young African-American men are arrested each year
I am absolutely certain that those stats hold up today, or are worse.
On Election Day, 95 percent of African-Americans who voted cast their vote for Obama. But did you know that over a million African-American men who might have voted could not? Not did not. Could not, because of felony convictions. Could not, even if their time had been served.
This is called disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project has this to say about the issue: “Nationally, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13 percent of Black men unable to vote.”
13 percent of black men are disenfranchised
Last fall, the organization released a report, “Losing the Vote,” that makes stark this problem. A couple of “highlights”:
• 1.4 million African-American men, or 13 percent of black men, are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average.
• Given current rates of incarceration, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.
• 2.1 million disenfranchised persons are ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
Personal note: My son, the one on the school bench in the fourth grade, is one of those statistics, a combination of a failure of personal responsibility and losing his way in a game set up for him to fail. 25 years old and full of promise. Couldn’t vote. Obama’s achievement a dim light on his horizon.
A dream made real — but there is farther to go
I could go on, but I won’t. I just want to make sure we are all clear about this self-evident truth: Obama’s election is a dream made real 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. went to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and called for a better world for his children, and for ours. It is. But we aren’t there yet, not by a long shot.
People of color, African-Americans in particular, understand this truth explicitly. But white people … I’m worried about us. So listen up:
Tomorrow, when Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States, embrace that moment as perhaps the achievement in the fight for racial justice in our lifetime. But more important, embrace that moment as the first next step toward the incredible, difficult work that’s left to be done.
Ann Freeman, of Minneapolis, is a mother and grandmother who describes herself as a “white girl in a brown family.”
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