Regarding race: The opportunities and challenges of the Obama presidency

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The inauguration is done. President Obama has officially begun his new job. The United States of America is a different country. In case you haven’t noticed, it is different. I see it in the faces and lives of African-American friends, colleagues, students and acquaintances. New possibilities have opened for minority children: any job is now possible, even President of the United States of America. We hear it in music like the song “It’s a New Day” by Will.I.Am. Right now, the country is different, and this moment offers a wonderful opportunity and a frightening challenge, particularly to “white” America.

This new moment brings with it a new opportunity for advancing the great dream that lies at the theoretical core of our nation’s founding. We have the opportunity to see real progress on this question of equality; that all people, of any ethnicity, of both genders and of all ages are given equal access to the stuff necessary for a true, just and free way of life. As Michael Walzer says in Spheres of Justice, “The aim of political egalitarianism is a society free from domination. This is the lively hope named by the word equality: no more bowing and scraping, fawning and toadying; no more fearful trembling; no more high-and-mightiness; no more masters, no more slaves.” I am hopeful we have truly taken significant steps to overcome overt and blatant wrong-headed prejudices in favor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, charge to look at the content of a person’s character rather than the color of his or her skin.

The opportunity for real friendship across those historically impassable boundaries of race and ethnicity brings with it a new awareness of how shared power, as exemplified by the Obama ascension, allows us to show and receive respect for our common humanity. We have at hand a unique opportunity for the kind of equality Walzer suggests, because we have a renewed sensitivity to the kind of people we can be: a mutually respecting, even loving people.

Hence the challenge: we must not assume that because of Barack Obama’s success that the work of equality is accomplished. The danger of tokenism (applying the success of one minority person to the whole community) is that it hides the overwhelming work to be done behind a mask of singular accomplishment. This is not to say the accomplishment is insignificant; to the contrary. The accomplishment is another step, sometimes even a leap, forward in a very long journey. But it is not the destination.

Regarding equality, we should hope for the day when leading indicators of social wellbeing are equally favorable to all. Still today, too many minorities, particularly the African-American, Native-American and Latino/Hispanic-American communities, are disproportionally represented in statistics related to imprisonment, poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and drug abuse, high-school dropout rates, domestic violence, hunger and a cadre of other data that demonstrate community distress. Walzer reminds us that resources and access to the things necessary for life allows us to be both different and mutually engaged. As he states, “[Equality] is not a hope for the elimination of differences; we don’t all have to be the same or have the same amounts of things. Men and women are one another’s equals (for all important moral and political purposes) when no one possesses or controls the means of domination. …Domination is always mediated by some set of social goods.” Access to governmental power at the highest level is one kind of social goods. But so are access to safe homes, healthy foods, livable wages, excellence in education and life-altering healthcare. Addressing these issues requires both personal responsibility and societal, systemic change from all groups of people.

The danger of tokenism is that it falsely permits us all to ignore the stark reality that we still have a long journey ahead. Whatever our politics, I am hopeful that after celebrating this moment we will take up again that journey with renewed energy and focus. I hope we will seek friendships across ethnic and racial boundaries that lead to new conversations and understanding. At the same time, I hope we will continue to dismantle those social structures that covertly segregate us still. I hope we will see this moment as a respite on a longer journey to a much more fulfilling and joyful destination; a place where we daily, moment by moment, practice the belief that all women and men are of equal value and worth before God.

Quentin Kinnison is a professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno Pacific University.

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