The nation has made some advances on race since 2008, but it’s mostly come from the streets.
President Obama’s last State of the Union address just before the MLK holiday prompted me to reflect on the past seven years. We may be in a position to make some progress now because of actions that haven’t come from having a black president.
Here’s something I wrote after attending the Seattle Race Conference in 2008:
“The historian James Horton says our problem today is not the problem of slavery, it is the lingering problem of the distortion of reality that was necessary to justify slavery in a nation of high ideals and Christian faith. America created an image of the enslaved that is still embedded in people’s minds — lazy, dumb, dangerous, inferior; and made whiteness the residence of most good qualities.
“That’s why people can tolerate disparities in education, criminal justice, poverty. What else would we expect? Different assumptions wouldn’t let us rest while that kind of injustice continued.”
- ‘They killed Martin’: MLK’s assassination is seared into Seattle memories
- When MLK came to Seattle, a young teacher’s life changed
- A reporter feels the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.'s promised land on a Mexican mountaintop
- Jerry Large | The injustices MLK fought are still present in Seattle today
- How The Seattle Times covered MLK's assassination in 1968
- Readers remember the day MLK was shot
- Martin Luther King Jr.: An extraordinary life | Explore »
Under Our SkinWhat does ‘institutional racism’ mean? We asked 18 people to discuss terms about race. View the project.
That was the year Barack Obama became president, with some people saying we were about to become post-racial. But race relations felt worse instead.
Two men running for the Republican nomination in hopes of replacing him referred to him as a child in Thursday’s debate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went so far as to say, “This guy is a petulant child.”
Maybe politics during an election year isn’t the place to look for inspiration. Still, I’d expected a little more progress.
Also in 2008, I wrote about his election for BlackPast.org and said, “When I asked the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. about his expectations, he said seeing Obama and his family in the White House over time will change America’s view of what it is to be black.”
That’s the same Gates whom police arrested the next year after he and his driver forced open a stuck door at his home. A neighbor saw them and called police to report two black men breaking into a house. An officer arrived after the driver left and found Gates inside his home.
The then-58-year-old professor identified himself, but the officer took some convincing, and Gates became irritated and followed him outside asking why he had been treated in a way that seemed to Gates like discrimination. The officer arrested him.
Obama was asked about the case and said the officer had acted stupidly. That raised a ruckus, and Obama wound up backing down and inviting the officer and Gates to come to the White House and have a beer with him. So much for the power of the presidency.
Obama has spent most of his presidency avoiding making any statements about race unless he is pressed to do so. Most black people who want to keep a job have some understanding of that, but knowing not even the president could speak freely, well, it’s not heartening.
Related: Listen to Jerry Large’s MLK speech to Seattle Prep students
But there was some good news a few months ago. A poll from the Pew Research Center showed the percentage of white people who believe “the nation needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites” became a majority in 2015. Anyone who thought we were post-racial in 2008 should know better now.
I’m sure that dramatic change was caused not by political leadership, but by young people wielding smartphones and marching. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen a constant stream of cases in which someone, usually white and usually a police officer, shoots an unarmed black person, or sometimes a Mexican American or American Indian.
The shootings aren’t surprising to people who belong to one of the groups most likely to have unpleasant encounters with police, but to the majority they were news.
And mainstream journalists followed the people with cells and the marchers and eventually did some of what they should have been doing all along: looked at the shootings, then looked beyond the shootings at conditions in some of the communities where the shootings took place. There, journalists found grinding poverty and a government response that mostly consisted of more police.
In a number of cities, government relied on policing-for-dollars in poor communities, stopping and fining people at high rates. Now it makes political sense to do something about those issues. That’s progress, but it came from the bottom, not the top.