This essay introduces a special report on race in America during the Obama era, published in the April 2011 edition of The American Prospect. Colorlines.com is proud to partner with The American Prospect in creating an online home for the report. Visit Prospect.org/Colorblinded to read the whole series of essays, along with multimedia content and links to related Colorlines.com articles.
The following collection of essays offers a fresh assessment of the nature of racism in 21st century America and an examination of opportunities for healing it. The subject could not be more important. In many ways, race is a stain that runs across the entire fabric of American history almost from the beginning of European entry to the New World to the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president.
The inspiring story of American democracy is mixed with the eradication of native populations, slave labor, the repression of the Jim Crow period, lynchings, and official toleration, often encouragement, of cruelty and violence against people of color. All of these ugly episodes were possible because racism demonized people who were “different” and deemed them undeserving of compassion.
Many of us in the civil-rights movement thought we had finally defeated racism after a series of victories: the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education striking down school segregation; the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott; the massive and compelling demonstrations across the South and beyond during the 1960s; the Civil Rights Act in 1964; the Voting Rights Act in 1965; and the national policy changes embodied in Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.”
Shortly after Obama’s election, after the exuberance, confetti, and elegant speeches celebrating the victory had settled in the fall of 2008, we watched with dismay as some of the president’s political opponents expressed their rage at the prospect of a nonwhite national leader with cartoons reminiscent of the days when Jim Crow laws and white-robed Klansmen ruled. Not even Obama’s masterful speech on racism in Philadelphia, his inspiring campaign, and a national democratic vote could banish hatred.
And my abrupt firing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, following a right-wing blogger’s outrageous misrepresentation of my views and behavior, together with other events, only further demonstrates that the work is not done. Racism is still a powerful force. It is more critical now than ever to find ways to discuss racism and defeat it.
Racism has international implications, because it compromises our credibility in the eyes of the world. Beyond the debates of the day, demographics will cast another light on racism, because, according to the Census Bureau, by 2050 “white” people will no longer be in the majority in America. This fact only adds to the urgency of mending the 400-year wound of racism.
Having battled racism all my life, I have to wonder, as I watch events unfold, how this wonderful nation can overcome its obsession with skin color. We need to learn to live together. If we are to survive, we will have to figure out how to get it right. Difficult discussions on these issues are necessary to effectively deal with the racism that exists within and among us. The fight is more challenging now with 24-hour television news coverage and radio talk shows that often seem designed to promote division and hate. When the public debate is poisoned by polarizing and hurtful speech and behavior, the work is more difficult but just as necessary.
The healing process, whether on a political or a personal level, requires abandoning the convenient tribal impulses of emphasizing racial differences and stepping onto an unfamiliar path. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
Such a step has often proved impossible in America, especially in the heat of current events. But it is a step we must all join together and take.
Shirley Sherrod made the news in 2010 when she was forced to resign her position as the USDA’s Georgia director of rural development after a false charge of reverse racism. Her ensuing fight to get the truth out continued a lifetime of battling discrimination and advocating on behalf of the poor and unheard.