Just minutes after CNN blared at 11PM on Election Day that Barack Obama had been elected President of the United States of America, we heard a chilling reminder that some will seize this historic event to undercut still-needed support to create equal opportunity for all. William Bennett, neo-conservative Republican commentator, offered exceptionally gracious congratulations to Obama. So gracious, in fact, that fellow viewers in the room where I watched commented appreciatively about his remarks.
Then he dropped the hammer: Invoking his credential as a former Secretary of Education, Bennett expressed the view that Obama’s victory should put to rest forever the need for any further supplementary or compensatory support for people of color. He essentially said, if Obama made it, any person of color can get anywhere they want…so let’s hear no more whining from the underachievers.
It was a savage comment. Savage because he had greased the skids with a seemingly gracious appreciation of Obama’s achievement. Savage because he invoked his specious authority as a Secretary of Education twenty years ago (serving a President who sought to abolish his department). But most of all, savage because it so cruelly dismissed the unthinkable struggles of black Americans from coast to coast who are still trying to get ahead against staggering odds.
Let’s start by dismissing the notion of Obama as just another American person of color. The inordinately bright child of two college graduates, he was raised by Caucasian grandparents in a unique state (Hawaii) where “minorities” constitute a whopping and well-respected majority of the population (77%). He was educated at a premier private prep school (Punahou), matriculated at an Ivy League college (Columbia), and did his graduate work at perhaps the most esteemed professional school in America (Harvard Law School). At every step of the way, he was tutored and supported by caring and knowledgeable mentors the likes of which are hardly available to the millions of blacks whose needs Bennett so airily dismisses. What contempt he reveals for their struggles.
These are the ones who have inherited a legacy of suppression and deprivation. Ancestors who were systematically gutted of any vision or means of achieving their full potential. Great-grandparents who were slaves forbidden even to form families. Grandparents who were forbidden to go to school. Parents who served in a segregated U.S. military. Generation after generation, mugged at every turn by prejudice. The America of their ancestors was deliberately designed to suppress them, and that legacy has endured with dismaying impact right up to today.
Huge numbers of today’s young blacks are imprisoned in rural and urban enclaves, packed into miserable schools lacking even rudimentary resources, hopelessly distant from the elite academies where Barack Obama was able to develop his extraordinary gifts. Spirit-crushing places, with overworked teachers, not enough textbooks to go around, dropout rates that seem almost rational given the lack of gratification these schools provide.
But it is not just the unspeakably disgraceful schooling that limits today’s young blacks from fulfilling their potential. We who came from other backgrounds enjoyed a silent advantage not sufficiently appreciated in our self-congratulatory society: namely, we were constantly surrounded by models of achievement and a culture of expectation that made our own academic and vocational achievement almost inevitable. Like the unique experience of Barack Obama, most of us were raised by people in whose lives we observed daily what education had enabled them to achieve. Like the unique experience of Barack Obama, we were exhorted by parents and grandparents, speaking from firsthand experience, to delay near-term gratifications in order to make longer-term investments in study and apprenticeship. Like the unique experience of Barack Obama, we were drawn along at every step of the way by unseen hands confidently pulling us forward into places where our success could be nurtured and fulfilled.
How sweet it would be if William Bennett were correct in hailing Obama as the first-born of an entire race now riding an escalator to high places. But only a fool or cynic would swallow that heartless ploy. We have not even begun to take up the challenge of balancing the possibilities among all members of our society and redressing the crippling effects of our official national suppression of an entire race for nearly two hundred years. We have settled, instead, for the emergence of inner-city zones in which people of color are still segregated into encampments, like latter-day reservations, where education, health services, and family bonds are routinely sabotaged by official policies, programs, and neglect.
The Great Society initiative of the ‘60s showed that our country could mobilize itself to care in a big way about those in need. Much good was done. It also showed that we had much to learn about how to provide the support that aspiring citizens need without producing so-called unintended consequences. That initiative eventually faded out, overcome by other, noisier priorities like the Vietnam War and by the burden of its own rookie mistakes. But the continuing plight of America’s urban underclass, our capacity to learn from those rookie mistakes, and enlightened new leadership in Washington now form the basis for a fresh surge in America’s continuing quest to facilitate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. A Great Society is still possible. Let us get on with it.