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Commentary: Race still matters after Obama’s election

Young volunteers watch the inauguration of President Barack
Obama in Washington on Jan. 20. A UMNS file photo by Jay Mallin.

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. C. Anthony Hunt*
Nov. 11, 2009 | WASHINGTON

A year after the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States, these continue to be days of tremendous change and challenge in our society.

From the collapse of the economy that has affected all of us, to the wars being fought in at least two places in the Middle East, to the proliferation of violence that affects many of our urban communities, to the health care crisis that results in more than 40 million Americans living without health care today, issues of race and racism nationally and globally remain at the top of the nation’s agenda.

The Rev. C. Anthony Hunt

For many, Obama’s historic election as the first president of African descent renewed (or birthed) a sense of hope across the nation and the world. The election seemed to point – for many – to glimmers of hope that our society had somehow arrived at our ideals of “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one), and the creed shared in our nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (persons) are created equal.” Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama offered a framework for what he termed an audacity of hope amid the challenges we face.

Many seemed to sense (and hope) that the election of Obama would usher in an age of post-racism and post-racialism in America – and perhaps across the world. A year later, we discover that racial and racist realities continue to afflict us.

In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama offered words of caution to America in thinking that we may have arrived at becoming “post-racial,” or that we already live in a color-blind society, and that we may be beyond the need for discourse and critical engagement as it regards racism and related forms of oppression and injustice.

He wrote: “To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters – that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted.” We know the statistics: On almost every single socioeconomic indicator, from infant mortality to life expectancy to employment to home ownership, black and Latino Americans in particular lag far behind their white counterparts.

Obama urges dialogue

President Barack Obama

We also recall that Obama, in a major address entitled “A More Perfect Union” delivered during his presidential campaign, offered an analysis of the prevalence of racial tensions which continue to define the relationship between black and white communities. Obama argued that to simply shelve anger or “wish it away” (the race problem in America) could prove to be completely detrimental. Unambiguously, he pointed to a belief that race factors into the opportunities provided to each American citizen.

To support his belief, he noted that the inferior school systems today are often the ones that were segregated 50 years ago. Obama shared that the history of racism in America is undeniably at the root of the lack of opportunities for African Americans today. In light of this, it is both achievable and necessary for all Americans to unite and battle racial prejudices. In order to move to a more perfect union, people of all races must recognize the historically oppressive and tyrannical nature of racism and its impact on the black experience in America.         

A year after Obama’s historic election, several recent events have served to heighten awareness as to the ongoing problems of race and racism in America. Among these are the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge, Mass.; debate surrounding the president’s September speech to students returning to schools across the nation; the heckling by U.S. Congressman Joe Wilson (South Carolina) during a speech by President Obama to the joint session of the U.S. Congress and the ongoing debates surrounding the president’s efforts toward reforming our nation's health care system. During a recent visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., I was informed that there were more than 800 hate-related groups identified in 2008, and that this number is on the rise since Obama’s election as president.

Race matters 

In 1992, philosopher Cornel West published an important book entitled “Race Matters.” The book was written against the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots of April 1992, which followed the acquittal of the police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King, and the ensuing racial tensions in that city. In the book, West pointed to what he referred to as the “nihilism of black America,” where a certain nothingness, meaninglessness, lovelessness and hopelessness seems to have pervaded and permeated much of our society, particularly in the urban context. According to West at that time, race matters in America.

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In his most recent book, “Hope on a Tightrope,” West cautions against a false sense of security in hope yet unborn. He points out that real hope is grounded in a particularly messy struggle and it can be betrayed by naive projections of a better future that ignore the necessity of doing real work. For West, real hope is closely connected to attributes like courage, faith, freedom and wisdom. It comes out of a history of struggle, and points to a future filled with the possibilities of promise and progress. 

A year after the historic election of President Barack Obama, it is evident that there remain significant challenges to the actualization of real hope in America. Further, it is evident that race still matters in America, and that while we may be moving toward such real hope, it is a hope yet unborn in its fullness.

*Hunt, a member of the board of directors of the Commission on Religion and Race, is superintendent of the Baltimore-Harford District in the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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