Even with a black president, racism won't go away
Tension has been escalating in Ferguson since the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer early this month. The shooting has sparked controversy about whether it was caused by racial discrimination. This warrants a broader look at the issue of how African-Americans are faring in US society today.
On a symbolic level, having a black man as president may be important, but on a practical level, African Americans' very real problems remain. At best, Barack Obama's election in 2008 can only be considered an interim point in a healing process that must continue.
The core issue by which to measure progress is the actual situation of African Americans in the United States. The social and economic status of African Americans today actually is rather catastrophic.
For example, the unemployment rate for black Americans is more than twice the rate for whites. Black teenagers are more than twice as likely not to finish high school with their peers as white teens.
Black Americans are also incarcerated in jails and prisons at nearly six times the rate of white Americans. According to the NAACP, blacks account for about one million of the 2.3 million Americans currently imprisoned in the United States.
True, in a purely legal context, African Americans are now formally equipped with the same rights as whites. And without any doubt, the unvarnished racist hatred and unbelievable violence against them that marred America in the 1960s have been pushed out of view.
But there are many subtler forms of discrimination that can hardly be squared with living in the 21st century. The constant needling by the governors, legislatures and courts of many US states to suppress the black vote is a reminder of one fact of American life. The level of violence and outright criminality in the white establishment may be gone, but the eagerness to discriminate in any other available form is not.
It is especially instructive to look at documentaries from the 1960s, the heyday of the struggle for civil rights. Despite all the unfathomable oppression that blacks experienced when they stood up for their rights, there was also a lot of hope, especially in young black people's eyes. They were hoping for a better future, solid education and a solid lifestyle.
That hope has now vanished for many African Americans. The only thing that provides comfort about the 72.1% of young African American children born out of wedlock is that they are less alone in dealing with that challenge. The corresponding rate for white children now is 29.3%.
The Republican Party's opposition to any real social reforms that would improve these children's lot is fierce. That is no surprise.
What is a surprise are Mr Obama's tepid words, even when a historic date provides the opportunity to do some truth telling to the nation.
Consider the speech he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 2013, at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Here was finally an opportunity to tell the nation that all is not well with African Americans.
Who other than a black man who had taught constitutional law and serves as president of the United States could have spelled out what urgently needs doing?
And yet, Mr Obama did not do so at all. He limited himself to mellifluous words. And he dismissed any critics "who suggest … that little has changed".
Instead, he offered such niceties, as "There have been examples of success within black America that would have been unimaginable a half century ago."
Americans have a bad habit of celebrating at the mile marker, instead of finishing the marathon. It was necessary to take action in the 1960s to make full the hollow words of the Declaration and the Constitutional amendments adopted after the US Civil War.
Likewise, the election of President Obama was a milestone, but not a crowning achievement in itself.
The United States must still meet the promise of that event and work to correct the insidious and less visible violations of civil rights — and the economic imbalances that are the legacy of past misdeeds — and that still persist across the country.
Stephan Richter, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, is working on a book 'Rethinking America — and Thereby the World: 95 Theses'.