When he assumes the presidency next week, Barack Obama will enjoy the support of an overwhelming majority of Americans, including many who did not vote for him. If we have not yet overcome, we certainly have come a long, long way in an accelerated period of time. As a nation, we have every right to feel proud.
To me, this progress does not suggest that we have somehow been absolved of our own difficult and traumatic racial history, or that racial tensions have now been “resolved.” Instead of freeing us “from race,” it is my hope that the Obama presidency will propel us “to race” — that is, to discuss race in a new way.
One of the many positive byproducts of this election, I believe, will be at least a partial clearing away of the recriminations, guilt, denials and defensiveness that have characterized so many of our attempts to address race in the past. In its place, we may now finally be prepared to embrace what both King and Obama so powerfully articulated 40 years apart: Equality benefits everyone.
Over 40 years ago, King told us as much: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Obama picked up on this theme in his now historic speech on race, delivered in March 2008: “Your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams … investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
Unexpectedly, the economic crisis that is likely to define the first term of Obama’s presidency may actually offer him an opportunity to put this framework into action. Through his economic stimulus package, he can do more than improve our nation’s infrastructure. He can help us find the common ground in our quest for economic solvency and justice. In the words of Angela Blackwell, executive director and founder of PolicyLink, he can focus the plan on “building up people and communities — our human capital … we can create a pipeline to get low-income men and women and youth of color trained and ready to be part of the massive workforce we will need to get all of these projects built.”
Indeed, economic justice was a prominent theme struck by Martin Luther King Jr., particularly in his final years. At the time of his death, he was a fierce advocate for government investments in our cities; decrying “the curse of poverty,” which he termed as “cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.” After the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, such government investments went out of fashion, and most political figures conveniently chose to ignore the existence and insidious effects of poverty, both on the campaign trail and once in office.
But crises generally contain unexpected opportunities within them, if we look hard enough. Obama can use his powerful rhetorical gifts to reawaken our national commitment to equal opportunity, stressing common values, needs and concerns, while simultaneously investing in the people and communities who need it most.
During this momentous week, it is entirely appropriate to both reflect back and project forward. We made history on Nov. 4, 2008. We moved the country, and the world, a little closer to realizing King’s dreams of racial equality. But, in its simplest form, history is simply the record of the actions of living people.
Let us now commit ourselves, with King’s “fierce urgency of now,” to hustling history and those of us who live it along a little more quickly toward reaching that mountaintop where “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.
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