George Yancy’s recent passionate response in The Stone to
Trayvon Martin’s killing — and the equally passionate comments on his response —
vividly present the seemingly intractable conflict such cases always evoke.
There seems to be a sense in which each side is right, but no way to find common
ground on which to move discussion forward. This is because, quite apart from
the facts of the case, Trayvon Martin immediately became a symbol for two
apparently opposing moral judgments. I will suggest, however, that both these
judgments derive from the same underlying injustice — one at the heart of the
historic March on Washington 50 years ago and highlighted in the Rev. Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.’s speech on that occasion.
Trayvon Martin was, for the black community, a symbol of every young black male,
each with vivid memories of averted faces, abrupt street crossings, clicking car
locks and insulting police searches. As we move up the socioeconomic scale, the
memories extend to attractive job openings that suddenly disappear when a black
man applies, to blacks interviewed just to prove that a company tried, and even
to a president some still hate for his color. It’s understandable that Trayvon
Martin serves as a concrete emblem of the utterly unacceptable abuse, even
today, of young black men.
But for others this young black man became a symbol of other disturbing
realities; that, for example, those most likely to drop out of school, belong to
gangs and commit violent crimes are those who “look like” Trayvon Martin. For
them — however mistakenly — his case evokes the disturbing amount of antisocial
behavior among young black males.
Trayvon Martin’s killing focused our national discussion because Americans made
him a concrete model of opposing moral judgments about the plight of young black
men. Is it because of their own lack of values and self-discipline, or to the
vicious prejudice against them? Given either of these judgments, many conclude
that we need more laws — against discrimination if you are in one camp, and
against violent crime if you are in the other — and stronger penalties to solve
our racial problems.
There may be some sense to more legislation, but after many years of both
“getting tough on crime” and passing civil rights acts, we may be scraping the
bottom of the legal barrel. In any case, underlying the partial truths of the
two moral pictures, there is a deeper issue. We need to recognize that our
continuing problems about race are essentially rooted in a fundamental injustice
of our economic system.
This is a point that Martin Luther King Jr. made in his “I Have a Dream” speech,
one rightly emphasized by a number of commentators on the anniversary of that
speech, including President Obama and Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. King made the point
in a striking image at the beginning of his speech. “The Negro is not free,” he
said, because he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea
of material prosperity.” In 2011, for 28 percent of African-Americans, the
island was still there, the source of both images of Trayvon Martin.
The poverty is not an accident. Our free-enterprise system generates enough
wealth to eliminate Dr. King’s island. But we primarily direct the system toward
individuals’ freedom to amass personal wealth. Big winners beget big losers, and
a result is a socioeconomic underclass deprived of the basic goods necessary for
a fulfilling human life: adequate food, housing, health care and education, as
well as meaningful and secure employment. (Another Opinionator series, The Great
Divide, examines such inequalities in detail each week.)
People should be allowed to pursue their happiness in the competitive market.
But it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic
goods. Those who lack such goods have little chance of winning them in
competition with those who already have them. This is what leads to an
underclass exhibiting the antisocial behavior condemned by one picture of young
black men and the object of the prejudice condemned by the other picture.
We need to move from outrage over the existence of an underclass to serious
policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether
our current capitalist system is inevitably unjust. If it is, is there a
feasible way of reforming or even replacing it? If it is not, what methods does
it offer for eliminating the injustice?
It is easy — and true — to say that a society as wealthy as ours should be able
to keep people from being unhappy because they do not have enough to eat, have
no safe place to live, have no access to good education and medical care, or
cannot find a job. But this doesn’t tell us how — if at all — to do what needs
to be done. My point here is just that saying it can’t be done expresses not
realism but despair. Unless we work for this fundamental justice, then we must
reconcile ourselves to a society with a permanent underclass, a class that,
given our history, will almost surely be racially defined. Then the bitter
conflict between the two pictures of this class will never end, because the
injustice that creates it will last forever. Dr. King’s island will never
disappear, and there will always be another Trayvon Martin.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy
at the University of Notre Dame
and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
FOR much of his public life, Barack Obama has been navigating
between people who think he is too black and people who think he is not black
The former group speaks mostly in dog-whistle innuendo and focuses on proxy
issues to emphasize Obama’s ostensible otherness: his birth certificate, his
supposed adherence to “black liberation theology” (presumably before he
converted to Islam), his “Kenyan, anticolonial” worldview. Jonathan Alter’s
recent book on Obama’s presidency sums up these notions as symptoms of “Obama
Derangement Syndrome” — a disorder whose subtext is more often than not: he’s
On the other side are African-Americans and liberals who are disappointed that
Obama has not made it his special mission to call out the racism that still
festers in American society and rectify the racial imbalance in our economy, in
our schools, in our justice system.
“It has, at times, been painful to watch this particular president’s calibrated,
cautious and sometimes callous treatment of his most loyal constituency,” the
radio and TV host Tavis Smiley told The Times’s Jodi Kantor last year. That was
one of the gentler rebukes from the not-black-enough camp.
Obama believes he best serves the country, and ultimately the interests of black
Americans, by being the president of America, not the president of black
America. Even when he speaks eloquently on the subject, as he did in his 2008
speech in Philadelphia, he presents himself as a bridge between white and black
rather than the civil rights leader-in-chief. And even when his administration
has undertaken reforms that address racial injustice — reinvigorating the
moribund civil rights division of the Justice Department, for example — he does
not call a news conference and make a big deal of it. This is certainly
calibrated and cautious. But callous?
Obama’s remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin — “could have been me 35 years
ago” — reanimated the old divide. From the he’s-too-black sideline the president
was predictably accused of indulging in “racial victimology” and “race baiting.”
On the other side, some of those who had yearned for Obama to be more outspoken
seized on his riff as a turning point; the president, a Detroit radio host
exulted, “showed his brother card.” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor
who has known Obama for 25 years, told NPR he felt like “turning cartwheels”
when he heard the remarks, and he declared he would now have to rethink a
book-in-the-works, in which he had planned to criticize the president’s timidity
“It seems to me he threw caution to the wind,” Ogletree told me. “It opens up a
whole new chapter of Barack Obama.”
Does it? I, too, found Obama’s words moving in their emotional warmth and
empathy. But if you go back and read them, now that the heat of the moment has
cooled, you will see they are carefully measured and completely consistent with
what he has said in his writing and speaking since he entered public life. The
warrior against racism that critics on the right deplore and critics on the left
demand is nowhere to be found. His comments on the pain and humiliation of
racial profiling, which got the most attention, reprise a theme that goes back
at least to his days as a state senator. His respectful treatment of the court
that acquitted Martin’s killer and his nod to the pathologies of the black
underclass got less notice.
“He basically says, try to understand this issue from the perspective of people
different from yourself,” said Thomas Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania
historian who has written a book-length study of Obama and race. “And he says it
to black folks and white folks.” But somehow listeners on both sides hear what
they expect to hear, Sugrue said, on one side “a prophetic Martin Luther King
Jr.,” on the other side “a pent-up Black Panther waiting to explode.”
There’s a name for that: racial profiling. People may no longer give Obama
suspicious glares in department stores or clutch their purses when he enters an
elevator, but they have typecast him according to their own fears and
expectations of a black man in the White House. They are still profiling Barack
Those who hope his Trayvon talk signaled a new presidential activism on race
will be watching two litmus tests. The first is whether Obama’s Justice
Department will file a civil rights suit against George Zimmerman, the
neighborhood watch enthusiast who shot Martin dead. The N.A.A.C.P. says more
than a million people have signed petitions calling for Justice to prosecute
Zimmerman for a hate crime. The second is whether the president will offer a
cabinet post to Ray Kelly, the New York police commissioner who has presided
over the aggressive stop-and-frisk policing of mostly black and Latino men.
Obama’s public praise of Kelly as a possible secretary of homeland security
prompted anger and amazement, some of it on this page. Was the president
indifferent to Kelly’s role as, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, “the proprietor of
the largest local racial profiling operation in the country,” or simply
My guess is that the president will navigate those straits as he always has when
race looms, carefully and without fanfare. If he is true to form, he will
quietly pass over Kelly, because it’s now clear the appointment would become a
major distraction from his agenda, because racial profiling is a lifelong
personal sore spot for Obama, and because he has other, less polarizing options.
He will leave George Zimmerman’s fate to Attorney General Eric Holder, who seems
likely to conclude that a hate-crimes case would not stick and would be seen as
putting politics over law. (The federal statute says it’s not enough to prove
Zimmerman pursued Martin because of his race; the government would have to prove
that racial prejudice was his motive for killing the teenager.) In his remarks
on the case, Obama seemed to hint that the feds would not step in where the
state has already ruled.
So if Obama’s Trayvon moment was not the debut of a new, more activist
president, was it at least the beginning of a national conversation about race?
If so, I doubt it will be a conversation led by the president. When race came up
in an interview published in Sunday’s Times, he promptly segued into a
discussion of economic strains on the social fabric.
And that’s O.K. President Obama has an economy to heal, a foreign policy to run,
a daunting agenda blockaded by an intransigent opposition. Randall Kennedy,
another Harvard law professor who has studied Obama and criticized him for a
lack of audacity, says frustration should be tempered by realism. “My view of
Obama is as a Jackie Robinson figure,” Kennedy told me. “Jackie Robinson breaks
the color barrier and encounters all sorts of denigration, people spitting on
him, and because he was a pioneer he had to be above it all. ... People expect
Obama now to all of a sudden jump into this totally messy issue of race and the
administration of criminal justice? It’s completely implausible. To do it would
require a major investment of political capital.”
And, come to think of it, why is that his special responsibility anyway?
“There’s sort of a persistent misperception that talking about race is black
folk’s burden,” said Benjamin Jealous, president of the N.A.A.C.P., when I asked
him about Obama’s obligation. “Ultimately, only men can end sexism, and only
white people can end racism.”
Wouldn’t you like to hear John Boehner or Mitch McConnell or Chris Christie or
Rick Perry own up as candidly as the president has to the corrosive vestiges of
racism in our society? Now that might be an occasion to turn cartwheels.
During last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Republican senators
kept bringing the conversation back to 2001 — the year when Sonia Sotomayor
delivered the most famous version of her line about how a “wise Latina woman
with the richness of her experiences” might outshine a white male judge.
It was left to a Democratic senator, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, to ask about the
much more interesting year of 2028.
By then, according to recent Supreme Court jurisprudence, some kinds of
affirmative action may no longer be permissible. In 2003, writing for the
majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, Sandra Day O’Connor upheld race-based
discrimination in college admissions ... but only for the current generation.
Such policies “must be limited in time,” she wrote, adding that “the Court
expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be
necessary to further the interest approved today.”
It was a characteristic O’Connor move: unmoored from any high constitutional
principle but not without a certain political shrewdness. In a nation that
aspires to colorblindness, her opinion acknowledged, affirmative action can only
be justified if it comes with a statute of limitations. Allowing reverse
discrimination in the wake of segregation is one thing. Discriminating in the
name of diversity indefinitely is quite another.
It’s doubtful, though, that Sonia Sotomayor shares this view.
“It is firmly my hope, as it was expressed by Justice O’Connor,” she told
Senator Kohl, “that in 25 years, race in our society won’t be needed to be
considered in any situation.”
But O’Connor didn’t hope; she expected. And Sotomayor’s record suggests that
there’s a considerable difference between these postures — that for the nominee,
as for most liberal jurists, as long as racial disparities persist, so too must
This is the big question underlying both the “wise Latina” contretemps and the
controversy surrounding Sotomayor’s role in Ricci v. DeStefano. Whither
affirmative action in an age of America’s first black president? Will it be
gradually phased out, as the Supreme Court’s conservatives seem to prefer? Or
will it endure well into this century and beyond?
To affirmative action’s defenders, Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings have been
an advertisement for the latter course. Here you have a Hispanic woman being
grilled by a collection of senators who embody, quite literally, the white male
power structure. Her chief Republican interlocutor, Jeff Sessions of Alabama,
even has a history of racially charged remarks.
But the senators are yesterday’s men. The America of Jefferson Beauregard
Sessions III is swiftly giving way to the America of Sonia Maria Sotomayor and
Barack Hussein Obama.
The nation’s largest states, Texas and California, already have “minority”
majorities. By 2023, if current demographic trends continue, nonwhites — black,
Hispanic and Asian — will constitute a majority of Americans under 18. By 2042,
they’ll constitute a national majority. As Hua Hsu noted earlier this year in
The Atlantic, “every child born in the United States from here on out will
belong to the first post-white generation.”
As this generation rises, race-based discrimination needs to go. The explicit
scale-tipping in college admissions should give way to class-based affirmative
action; the de facto racial preferences required of employers by
anti-discrimination law should disappear.
A system designed to ensure the advancement of minorities will tend toward
corruption if it persists for generations, even after the minorities have become
a majority. If affirmative action exists in the America of 2028, it will be as a
spoils system for the already-successful, a patronage machine for politicians —
and a source of permanent grievance among America’s shrinking white population.
You can see this landscape taking shape in academia, where the quest for
diversity is already as likely to benefit the children of high-achieving recent
immigrants as the descendants of slaves. You can see it in the backroom dealing
revealed by Ricci v. DeStefano, where the original decision to deny promotions
to white firefighters was heavily influenced by a local African-American
“kingmaker” with a direct line to New Haven’s mayor. You can hear it in the
resentments gathering on the rightward reaches of the talk-radio dial.
And you can see the outlines of a different, better future in the closing
passages of Barack Obama’s recent address to the N.A.A.C.P., in which the
president presented an insistent vision of black America as the master of its
Affirmative action has always been understandable, but never ideal. It
congratulates its practitioners on their virtue, condescends to its
beneficiaries, and corrodes the racial attitudes of its victims.
All of this could be defended as a temporary experiment. But if affirmative
action persists far into the American future, that experiment will have failed —
and we will all have been corrupted by it.
(Reuters) - For Americans burdened by a sense of history, something once
unthinkable has happened. The United States has elected a black president.
What has changed in terms of race to enable Democratic candidate Barack Obama's
defeat of Republican John McCain and what might change as a result?
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said his satisfaction at Obama's success was
conditioned by a sense of history. Jackson witnessed the assassination of Martin
Luther King in 1968 and twice ran for president in the 1980s.
"His (Obama) winning means America's getting better. We are more mature. We are
less anxious around each other," he said in an interview.
Jackson put the election in the context of the movement to end racial
segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and win voting rights for blacks
in the teeth of violent opposition.
"I know so many people white, black and Jewish who marched and were martyred. I
wish that those who paid the supreme sacrifice could see the results of their
labors," he said.
One surprise apparent in the earliest primaries in which parties chose their
nominees was the support Obama attracted among whites voters.
At the same time, black voters were integral to Obama's success, swinging a
number of states in his favor. And Obama went out of his way to embrace black
voters and their concerns, most notably in a high-profile speech on race in
Those factors deal a blow to black skepticism about their role in politics and a
lingering sense of disenfranchisement.
"The first thing Obama's presidency means for black people is, at least
momentarily, a sense of full citizenship," said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a
political science professor at Princeton University.
Just as the election could change the way blacks perceive politics and their
place in U.S. society, it could also alter the way they are perceived,
particularly if Obama's administration gains a reputation for competence.
Conservative leader Newt Gingrich said Obama's rise reflected changes that have
already taken place. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor
Colin Powell proved that blacks could deal at the highest levels in government,
"It begins to be accepted that young men and women of color who can certainly
dream the biggest dreams .... America has moved beyond any narrowly defined
sense of racism," said the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
in an interview.
Stubborn facts, however, point toward persistent inequality that Obama may
struggle to tackle given the downturn facing the U.S. economy.
Black Americans make up around 13 percent of the population but earn less money
and are less healthy than the general population. They are also more likely to
be unemployed, less likely to own property and more likely to be convicted and
jailed for crimes.
A debate rages over whether those disparities are due to prejudice, social
disadvantages such as less well-funded schools in inner cities where many black
Americans live, or whether African Americans should work harder to deal with
their own issues.
Obama's frequent injunctions to parents to switch off the television set, get
children to do homework and take better care of their children could tip the
balance in the debate.
And if his administration expands health care it could significantly redress one
big disparity, said Harris-Lacewell.
But one concern for people seeking to redress inequality is that Obama's victory
could diminish their leverage when it comes to addressing those issues.
"People will say: 'We have elected a black president. We are done with race,'"
said William Jelani Cobb, author of books about contemporary black culture.
Exit polls showed that large numbers of young voters turned out to vote for
Obama as president.
That support is partly a product of school integration, which began in the
1960s, though recent studies show that the process of integration is being
It is also the result of the increasing visibility of African Americans in
popular culture from music to movies. Jackson argued that the presence of blacks
in sports had helped transform racial attitudes.
Music mogul Russell Simmons said hip hop and hip-hop culture and fashion had
also profoundly impacted youth culture, despite the controversy associated with
"Hip hop and hip-hop culture had so much to do with this shift in race
relations. ... The doors were knocked down by hip hop. It had more to do with a
shift in race relations than all the civil rights leaders," he said.
Another fact that played little role in voting choices could yet prove important
-- for the next four years the country's first family will be black.
Americans will watch Obama's daughters, who are 10 and 7, grow up in the White
That could give young people of color a renewed sense of the opportunities open
Democratic candidate Barack Obama became the first black president of the United
States with his win in Tuesday's election, a milestone in a country with a long
legacy of racial oppression of African Americans.
Stark racial disparities persist in the United States.
Following is a list of some inequalities.
-- The infant mortality rate for babies of black women is 2.4 times the rate for
babies of white women, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention report in October.
-- Doctors are less likely to give black women radiation therapy after surgery
to remove early-stage breast cancer than white women, according to a study by
the Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in September.
-- The study was one of many to show that U.S. blacks get inferior care for
cancer and other ailments compared to that given whites, although doctors have
struggled to understand why.
-- Life expectancy for the white population exceeded that for the black
population by 5.1 years, the figures said.
-- The maternal mortality rate was 3.3 times greater for the black population
than for the white population.
-- 6.1 percent of the overall U.S. labor force was unemployed in the third
quarter of 2008, but 11.4 percent of the black labor force was out of work,
according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
-- The total median income for a white family was $64,427 in 2007. The total for
a black family was $40,143, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
-- 10.6 percent of the white U.S. population in 2007 lived below the official
poverty threshold of $21,000 for a family of four, compared to 24.4 percent of
the black population, the data said.
-- 14.3 percent of white Americans lacked health insurance compared to 19.2
percent of black Americans, according to 2007 U.S. census data.
-- 72 percent of white Americans own their own homes, compared with 46 percent
of African Americans, the data said.
* CRIMINAL JUSTICE:
-- 0.8 percent of the white male population is incarcerated as opposed to 4.6
percent of the black male population, according to U.S. Department of Justice
-- 10.7 percent of the black male population aged 30-34 was incarcerated, versus
1.9 percent of the white male population of the same age, according to the same
-- 1,406 black men are incarcerated in the United States for every 100,000
people. For white men that figure is 773 for every 100,000, according to U.S.
Department of Justice figures.
-- Rates for the number of women imprisoned were much lower than for males,
though for black women rates were higher than for white women.
-- Public schools in the United States are becoming more racially segregated and
the trend is likely to accelerate because of a Supreme Court decision in June,
according to a report by the Civil Rights Project of the University of
California Los Angeles.
-- The rise in segregation threatens the quality of education received by
nonwhite students, who make up 43 percent of the total U.S. student body, the
-- Many segregated schools struggle to attract highly qualified teachers and
administrators. This leads to soaring drop-out rates and students not well
prepared for college.
-- The percentage of white public school students fell from 80 to 57 percent
between 1968 and 2005 and Latino enrollment nearly quadrupled during that
(AP) -- Barack Obama swept to victory as the nation's first black president
Tuesday night in an electoral college landslide that overcame racial barriers as
old as America itself. ''Change has come,'' he told a jubilant hometown Chicago
crowd estimated at nearly a quarter-million people.
The son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, the
Democratic senator from Illinois sealed his historic triumph by defeating
Republican Sen. John McCain in a string of wins in hard-fought battleground
states -- Ohio, Florida, Iowa and more. He captured Virginia and Indiana, too,
the first candidate of his party in 44 years to win either.
Obama's election capped a meteoric rise -- from mere state senator to
president-elect in four years.
Spontaneous celebrations erupted from Atlanta to New York and Philadelphia as
word of Obama's victory spread. A big crowd filled Pennsylvania Avenue in front
of the White House.
In his first speech as victor, to an enormous throng at Grant Park in Chicago,
Obama catalogued the challenges ahead. ''The greatest of a lifetime,'' he said,
''two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.''
He added, ''There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make
as president, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will
always be honest with you about the challenges we face.''
McCain called his former rival to concede defeat -- and the end of his own
10-year quest for the White House. ''The American people have spoken, and spoken
clearly,'' McCain told disappointed supporters in Arizona.
President Bush added his congratulations from the White House, where his tenure
runs out on Jan. 20. ''May God bless whoever wins tonight,'' he had told dinner
Obama, in his speech, invoked the words of Lincoln, recalled Martin Luther King
Jr., and seemed to echo John F. Kennedy.
''So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility
where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder,'' he said.
He and his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, will take their oaths of
office as president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2009. McCain remains in the
Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, returns to Alaska as governor after a
tumultuous debut on the national stage.
He will move into the Oval Office as leader of a country that is almost
certainly in recession, and fighting two long wars, one in Iraq, the other in
The popular vote was close -- 51.7 percent to 47 percent with 84 percent of all
U.S. precincts tallied -- but not the count in the Electoral College, where it
There, Obama's audacious decision to contest McCain in states that hadn't gone
Democratic in years paid rich dividends.
Shortly after 2 a.m. the East, The Associated Press count showed Obama with 349
electoral votes, well over the 270 needed for victory. McCain had 144 after
winning states that comprised the normal Republican base, including Texas and
most of the South.
Interviews with voters suggested that almost six in 10 women were backing Obama
nationwide, while men leaned his way by a narrow margin. Just over half of
whites supported McCain, giving him a slim advantage in a group that Bush
carried overwhelmingly in 2004.
The results of the AP survey were based on a preliminary partial sample of
nearly 10,000 voters in Election Day polls and in telephone interviews over the
past week for early voters. Obama has said his first order of presidential
business will be to tackle the economy. He has also pledged to withdraw most
U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.
In Washington, the Democratic leaders of Congress celebrated.
''It is not a mandate for a party or ideology but a mandate for change,'' said
Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California: ''Tonight the American people have
called for a new direction. They have called for change in America.''
Democrats also acclaimed Senate successes by former Gov. Mark Warner in
Virginia, Rep. Tom Udall in New Mexico and Rep. Mark Udall in Colorado. All won
seats left open by Republican retirements.
In New Hampshire, former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen defeated Republican Sen. John
Sununu in a rematch of their 2002 race, and Sen. Elizabeth Dole fell to Democrat
Kay Hagan in North Carolina.
Biden won a new term in Delaware, a seat he will resign before he is sworn in as
The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, survived a scare in Kentucky,
and in Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss hoped to avoid a December runoff.
The Democrats piled up gains in the House, as well.
They defeated seven Republican incumbents, including 22-year veteran Chris Shays
in Connecticut, and picked up nine more seats where GOP lawmakers had retired.
At least three Democrats lost their seats, including Florida Rep. Tim Mahoney,
turned out of office after admitting to two extramarital affairs while serving
his first term in Florida. In Louisiana, Democratic Rep. Don Cazayoux lost the
seat he had won in a special election six months ago.
The resurgent Democrats also elected a governor in one of the nation's
traditional bellwether states when Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon won his
An estimated 187 million voters were registered, and in an indication of
interest in the battle for the White House, 40 million or so had already voted
as Election Day dawned.
Obama sought election as one of the youngest presidents, and one of the least
experienced in national political affairs.
That wasn't what set the Illinois senator apart, though -- neither from his
rivals nor from the other men who had served as president since the nation's
founding more than two centuries ago. A black man, he confronted a previously
unbreakable barrier as he campaigned on twin themes of change and hope in
McCain, a prisoner of war during Vietnam, a generation older than his rival at
72, was making his second try for the White House, following his defeat in the
battle for the GOP nomination in 2000.
A conservative, he stressed his maverick's streak. And although a Republican, he
did what he could to separate himself from an unpopular president.
For the most part, the two presidential candidates and their running mates,
Biden and Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, spent weeks campaigning in
states that went for Bush four years ago.
McCain and Obama each won contested nominations -- the Democrat outdistancing
former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- and promptly set out to claim the
mantle of change.
Obama won California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia,
Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York,
Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and
McCain had Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South
Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
He also won at least four of Nebraska's five electoral votes, with the other one
Life has changed beyond recognition for many Americans since an assassin's
bullet killed Martin Luther King in 1968. Yet despite the rise of a black middle
class and Barack Obama's challenge for the White House,
the racial divide still
exists - and for an urban underclass,
things have only got worse.
reports from Memphis
Sunday March 30 2008
Paul Harris in Memphis
This article appeared in the Observer
on Sunday March 30 2008
on p30 of the
It was last updated at 00:27 on March 30 2008.
Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, looks frozen
in time. The sheets of the beds are rumpled, undrunk coffee stews in cheap cups,
a meal seems half-eaten. It is a re-creation of the room as it was at 6.01pm on
4 April, 1968. That was the moment when, on the balcony outside, the room's most
famous guest, Martin Luther King, was shot dead.
King died four decades ago at the end of an era of civil rights victories that
ended racial segregation and won black Americans the vote. It was a struggle
that finally cost him his life, felled at the Lorraine by a white assassin's
bullet from across the street.
But though Room 306 - preserved as part of a museum - is unchanged from that
bloody day 40 years ago, black America itself is almost unrecognisable from
King's time. It has been transformed, both for the better and for the worse.
Some positive developments would have been unimaginable for King. Senator Barack
Obama is running for President and could become the first black person to hold
the job. Black politicians hold top offices in cities and states across the
continent. They are buoyed by a large black middle class every bit as wealthy,
suburban and professional as its white counterpart.
Yet, since 1968, much of black America has also been beset by disaster. A vast
underclass inhabits America's ghettos, mired in joblessness, drugs and gang
violence. In the inner cities half of all black males do not finish high school.
Six in 10 of those will end up in jail by the time they reach their
mid-thirties. These people grow up in an environment often more segregated, more
hopeless and more dangerous than the Jim Crow era of the Deep South.
It is perhaps one of the greatest paradoxes facing modern American black leaders
such as Charles Steele, now president of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, which King founded and used as his tool to bring civil rights to
America. 'If Dr King was alive now, he would be distressed and disappointed in
America,' Steele said. 'America is still racist to a large degree. More so
perhaps. It's subliminal and embedded in the system.'
That is pretty much the view of Thelma Townsend, 68, who should be retired but
still works as a nurse in the suburb of Orange Mound. The suburb is a landmark
in Memphis, built for black Americans more than 100 years ago on the 5,000-acre
site of a slave plantation. Once it rivalled New York's Harlem as a centre of
black culture and economic power. But now it has been hit hard by drugs and
gangs and unemployment. Many houses are dilapidated and abandoned. Townsend
snorts in disgust at the past 40 years in black America. 'It ain't changed for
the better that I can see,' she said. 'Drugs are rampant, so killings are
rampant. If anything, it's got worse around here.'
This is the bad side of black America since King died, and it exists in cities
across the country. In Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, Kansas City,
St Louis and many other places, once proud black neighbourhoods have fallen prey
to the ravages of crime and drugs. Even King's hometown neighbourhood of Auburn
Street in Atlanta is a wreck and shadow of its former self. Orange Mound and
other black Memphis inner-city suburbs are typical. Gangs with such names as
Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples boss the local drugs trade. Killings and
shootings are common. Drug addicts seem more common than jobs.
The roots of this decay partly lie in the fatal shot that felled King. His
murder sparked race riots in 125 cities that left 46 people dead, 2,600 injured
and 21,000 arrested. Entire black and inner- city neighbourhoods were burnt down
overnight. Many never recovered. The violence quickened the process of 'white
flight', destroying the tax base of many city cores.
At the same time new civil rights laws allowed the black middle class to flee
too. What was left behind became the underclass, deeply vulnerable to the wave
of drugs such as crack and heroin that invaded in the Seventies and Eighties and
hit by the decline in manual jobs as America's manufacturing industry
Statistics indicate that things are getting worse. More black people are being
jailed than a decade ago. Only 31 per cent of black children born to
middle-class parents earn more than their parents, compared with 68 per cent of
white children. More than half of black workers are stuck in low-paid jobs.
Many experts think there is little prospect of the underclass's plight changing
at all. 'The outlook is very bleak,' said Professor Jerald Podair, an expert on
civil rights history at Lawrence University. near Appleton, Wisconsin.
Yet that is also far from the whole picture. Obama's run for the presidency has
energised even those with little hope. 'Obama does make me proud,' said
Townsend. But it also shows the successes of the black middle class, fulfilling
King's dream of black Americans taking their rightful place in the nation.
For Obama is far from alone in seeking high office. New York state and
Massachusetts boast black governors despite both states being in New England,
far away from traditionally southern centres of black population. Big cities
such as Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia and Newark have black mayors who have
based their appeal on the same sort of 'post-racial' consensus that is powering
At the same time, the successes of such mayors and governors have undercut the
traditional power of 'old style' black leaders such as the Reverend Jesse
Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose roots lay in black churches. Now
modern black politicians are perhaps more at home in the boardroom than the
pulpit. They self-consciously - and successfully - woo white voters as much as
they appeal to their black base.
Now Obama is trying to make that case on a national scale. Though recent weeks
have seen Hillary Clinton's supporters and Republicans try to raise race as an
issue, Obama has fought back with a bold speech challenging America to have a
frank and open debate about race. 'Race is the question in America that has
still never really been asked,' said Podair.
Not everyone is ignoring it, though. Wendi Thomas, 36, is asking the race
question in Memphis. She is a local black columnist on the city's Commercial
Appeal newspaper who deals with racial issues. Now she is setting up a project
called Common Ground to encourage Memphis citizens of all races to come together
at weekly meetings and talk frankly about the race issues that bother them. At
the end of it the 'graduates' will be encouraged to go out into the rest of the
city and break down racial boundaries. Her first pilot scheme with 200 places
has rapidly filled up and will begin meeting on 24 April. 'I just wanted to
actually do something, rather than just write about it,' Thomas said.
Memphis is a city much in need of such a project. The city is split almost 50-50
between black and white. Yet it feels like a segregated place whose two halves
rarely meet, maintaining their own neighbourhoods, schools and parks. It is a
city where the issue of race lies constantly under the surface, boiling below a
patina of tourist-friendly Southern charm. 'Race underlies everything in this
community. We need to have these discussions, even though they are painful and
messy,' Thomas said.
That is true. The fact remains that even middle-class black people and whites
have fundamentally different perceptions of America. While many whites are
flocking to Obama's campaign on the base of its post-racial appeal, that is not
how many blacks see it. As he sweeps up more than 90 per cent of the black vote
in the Democratic race, there is a clear feeling of racial pride in his
candidacy. Indeed fervour and hope for Obama have become a keystone of black
America in 2008. 'It is unreal. It is surreal. I hate to hope too much. But I
genuinely think that King would be bursting with pride,' said Thomas.
But there are many other points on which black and white Americans differ. Many
whites were outraged when Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright,
said the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington were 'chickens coming home to
roost'. They saw his words as conspiracy-minded, unpatriotic and anti-white.
But many blacks reacted with a collective shrug, pointing out that much of what
Wright said - even some outrageous claims about government conspiracies - were
fairly common in some urban black churches and always had been.
The news would have come as less of a shock if black and white Americans (both
of which groups are deeply religious) worshipped together. But they do not.
Thomas, a Memphis native, has spent years looking for a racially mixed church to
go to each Sunday. 'I still have not found one,' she said. That sort of de facto
segregation has kept black and white America very much apart. After all, both
have had such a different experience of the country. With the black middle class
there is still a certain ambivalence about America; about whether they have
truly been accepted. And there is a lot of evidence to say they have not been,'
Ironically, one of the main reasons blacks and whites may start addressing race
is in the growth of the Hispanic community in America. Hispanics are now
America's largest ethnic minority, overtaking blacks, and numbering about 44
million people. They have pioneered communities all over the US, fundamentally
changing the dynamics of race in a country that has long seen itself in terms of
literal black and white.
Even in Memphis the issue has begun to appear. It is thought the number of
Hispanics in the city could top 50,000 people. One in 10 babies in the city born
last year was Hispanic. There is a Spanish-language local newspaper, Spanish
radio stations and churches offer Spanish-language services. If black and white
Americans really want to have a discussion about race, some think they need to
hurry up and start talking before the conversation changes entirely.
For Steele, the man who now wears King's old mantle as head of the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, such concerns are for the future. On Friday,
he, the leadership conference and dozens of other groups will be holding
ceremonies to remember King. Though many whites despised or feared King when he
was alive, he is now a national American hero.
Those memorials will now take place against the backdrop of Obama's bid for the
White House and it might be tempting to see a straight line linking the two. But
for Steele many Americans were missing one of the most overlooked points of
King's career. The fact is, by 1968, King himself had moved on from purely
racial issues. Yet again he was ahead of his time. His final campaigns were
focused on fighting poverty and labour disputes. He came to Memphis in support
of striking workers.
'He was killed in Memphis because he had started to focus on poor folks,
regardless of their colour,' Steele said. That was 40 years ago. As Obama's
campaign changes the American political landscape, it might be wise to remember
that race is not the only controversial issue that mainstream politics still
tends to shun. There is the thorny issue of class, too.
'If you thought having a talk about race was difficult in America, then having
one about class is even harder,' said Podair. Yet 40 years ago King tried to
start that debate as well. A bullet cut short his ambitions. Room 306 at the
Lorraine was not the only thing his death left frozen in time.
(AP) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday rejected school assignment plans that take
account of students' race in two major public school districts. The decisions
could imperil similar plans nationwide. The Court also blocked the execution of
a Texas killer whose lawyers argued that he should not be put to death because
he is mentally ill.
Today is probably the Court's last session until October.
The school rulings in cases affecting schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle
leave public school systems with a limited arsenal to maintain racial diversity.
The court split, 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts announcing the court's
judgment. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent that was joined by the court's
other three liberals.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion in which he said race may be
a component of school district plans designed to achieve diversity.
He agreed with Roberts that the plans in Louisville and Seattle went too far. He
said, however, that to the extent that Roberts' opinion could be interpreted as
foreclosing the use of race in any circumstance, ''I disagree with that
The two school systems in Thursday's decisions employ slightly different methods
of taking students' race into account when determining which school they would
In the case involving the mentally ill killer in Texas, the court ruled 5-4 in
the case of Scott Louis Panetti, who shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in
front of his wife and young daughter.
The convicted murderer says that he suffers from a severe documented illness
that is the source of gross delusions. ''This argument, we hold, should have
been considered,'' said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion.
Panetti's lawyers wanted the court to determine that people who cannot
understand the connection between their crime and punishment because of mental
illness may not be executed.
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bars ''the execution of a person who is
so lacking in rational understanding that he cannot comprehend that he is being
put to death because of the crime he was convicted of committing,'' they said in
In a third case, the Court abandoned a 96-year-old ban on manufacturers and
retailers setting price floors for products.
In a 5-4 decision, the court said that agreements on minimum prices are legal if
they promote competition.
The ruling means that accusations of minimum pricing pacts will be evaluated
case by case.
The Supreme Court declared in 1911 that minimum pricing agreements violate
federal antitrust law.
A remarkable case has been before the law courts of
Louisiana. The plaintiff, Augustus Johnson, a negro, was in the employment of
the Cromwell line of steamers, and earning over 500 dollars yearly. While some
carboys of sulphuric acid were being landed there was an explosion, by which one
man was killed and several were injured.
Johnson's eyesight was entirely destroyed by this
lamentable accident; he brought an action against the steamship company for
damages, and a jury awarded him 10,000 dollars. The defendants regarded this sum
as excessive, and applied for a new trial before the United States Circuit
When the matter came on for argument, Judge Billings asked how much would have
been allowed before the war to the master of a slave who had been thus injured.
Mr Forman, the counsel for the negro, very properly protested against such a
view of the matter.
The slaveholder, he said, would have received "whatever the slave would sell for
on the block", added to a "sum sufficient to enable the master to support" the
slave during his life. But the master could "recover nothing for the pain and
agony of body and mind of the slave".
That was not a test of "amount of damages proper to be allowed now". The negro
was no longer a chattel or to be valued as a chattel, but was on the plane of a
freeman and a citizen, and all distinctions on account of race or colour were
abolished. There is still, it would appear, a colour line even in the American
law courts, for the Judge has decided to grant a new trial unless the plaintiff
will accept 5,000 dollars - half of what the jury awarded. Does anyone suppose
that Judge Billings would have taken similar action if the plaintiff's skin had
History inverts itself
The American papers recently had to record an elsewhere amusing inversion of a
famous situation in history. It is now 117 years since Boston harbour was, as
Carlyle says, "black with unexpected tea" protest against a tea duty.
To-day the tea traders of Boston, New York, and Chicago are petitioning both
Houses at Washington for the reimposition of a tea duty of 10 per cent. They
complain that as the United States are [sic] the only nation in the world which
admit teas duty free, foreign countries have special facilities for unloading on
American soil their low-priced and inferior stock.
This petition is received by the same democracy, now a centenarian, which when a
spirited child, unloaded the foreign tea into the bay.