We Still Aren’t In a Post-Racial Society

By Fred McKissack

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

Moments after CNN declared Sen. Barack Obama the next president of the United States, I called my parents. I could tell my father was beaming. Through Obama, he could see the future for his grandsons and their peers — a collective sense of inclusion that has eluded the race for so long.

My mother cried when she recited the litany of things they’d lived through: Emmett Till, Selma, four little girls in Birmingham, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, Bloody Sunday, JFK, MLK, RFK, Chicago in ’68, Detroit, Watts, Newark, and Katrina. Then, as folks would say, the spirit hit her.

“Yes, we can,” she yelled. “Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes-we-can.”

It was an unforgettable moment.

But after a night’s sleep, I couldn’t help but think that now we’re going to hear, as we did after Obama’s triumph in the Iowa caucuses, the absurd talk about post-racial America.

Exactly how can we be in post-racial America when nearly 40 percent of black children under the age of 5 live at or below the poverty line?

How are we in post-racial America when the level of school segregation for Latinos is the highest in 40 years and segregation of blacks is back to levels not seen since the late 1960s?

How are we in post-racial America when the gaps in wealth, income, education, and health care have widened over the last eight years?

In 2006, 20.3 percent of blacks were not covered by health insurance, compared to only 10.8 percent of whites. For Latinos, a whopping 34.1 percent were not covered.

In 2007, the unemployment rate for blacks was twice as high as that for whites.

We are all Americans, but the pain of poverty is disproportionately cracking the backs of minorities.

There are those who insist that the gap in wealth, income, health care and education is due to an inherent culture of victimization. If people of color only worked harder, they’d be fine, we are told.

But it’s a flawed premise. This economy has never provided enough jobs for everyone. The funding of education gives a leg up to those who grow up in wealthy districts. Lack of health insurance is a necessity for those without the means. And institutional racism persists.

Now is not the time to avert our eyes from the prize. Indeed, the nation needs to refocus its attention on tearing down the walls that keep us from living in a truly post-racial America.

“Our union can be perfected,” Obama told the multitude gathered in Grant Park and the legions watching from New Orleans to Nairobi. “What we’ve already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”

His election and his words justified the sacrifices of my parents’ generation and bear the fruit of the protests at lunch counters and on Southern roads.

Fred McKissack is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools. A version of this essay was written for the Progressive Media Project (www.progressive.org).