A letter to NPR, read during today’s “Morning Edition”, responded to recent reports by NPR that seemed to emphasize that this past presidential election was about race, something the listener felt was inaccurate. Indeed, yesterday a mock edition of the New York Times (online version at: http://www.nytimes-se.com/) was distributed that forecasted an America next July 4th in which the Iraq war had ended, and progress was being made on several social fronts. One of the project organizers, Beka Economopoulos, stated: “This election was a massive referendum on change. There’s a lot of hope in the air, but there’s a lot of uncertainty too. It’s up to all of us now to make these headlines come true.”
Indeed, I wonder to what extent the election of Senator Obama as our next president might falsely signal that racism is behind us? Many, if not most, residents in Champaign don’t understand the consent decree the local school system voluntarily entered, let alone the racial inequities that led to the agreement and that persist more than a decade later (see http://www.champaignschools.org/index2.php?header=./&file=consentdecree for more on the consent decree). And with the last election, the tax increased needed to build the additional school and refurbish other schools that would further address the issues raised in the consent decree was defeated. While progress has been made to address racial inequalities in the local school system, much more is still needed.
I had an interesting conversation with a student several weeks ago on the three hour drive from Champaign to East St. Louis regarding race, class, and responses to drugs and teen pregnancy. We were discussing the responses of parents and school system employees to such events, comparing the public school systems in economically-distressed communities and private, catholic schools attended by primarily high-middle and upper class families. Our impressions (I attended a school of the former type, my sister and the student the latter) seemed to indicate there wasn’t a great difference in the number of students doing drugs or indeed likely getting pregnant. But there were differences in how the families, community, and authorities were able to address the issues in a way that led to either dropping out of school and possibly going to jail, or managing to continue through school, graduate, and go on to college. Then today I came across an article from 2003 that reported numbers and factors directly related to the injustices committed in the name of the “war on drugs” (see http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0305&article=030510b).
As much as I wish it were so, individual and structural racism didn’t disappear prior to or on November 4th, nor will it on January 20th when Obama is sworn in as our next president. Further, it seems to me there may be a great danger that we as a society may be lulled into a belief that it has. We stand at a fork in the road, having taken a very exciting step towards a society that practices and not just espouses equal justice for all. The stage is set if we but dig in and recommit ourselves to do the work of rooting out and addressing injustices wherever they be found.