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Obama and Race: Where We Are and How We Got Here

Is the president-elect more a breaker of barriers or the beneficiary of barriers already broken?

by
Martha Zoller

Bio

January 16, 2009 - 12:40 am
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In a few days, America will swear in the first president who identifies himself as black. In the early days of the campaign, when no one thought Obama had a chance, there was discussion among the “lions” of the civil rights movement on whether Barack was “black enough.” Early in the campaign, people like Al Sharpton questioned whether he was authentically black and later on Jesse Jackson said in a very colorful way that Barack was “talking down to black people.” Both men have since gotten onto the president-elect’s team, but there was a feeling that Barack Obama was an upstart, half-white man who had not paid his dues.

I am a lifelong Southerner who is old enough to remember desegregation of schools, but not old enough to remember segregated water fountains. I am the first generation of integration and in the South we talk about these things — race issues — all the time. It’s actually quite fun to see people falling all over themselves to portray an image of being above the racial divide when we know no one in the world is above that discussion. It is because of America and its ideals written in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution and practiced over our history that people of all races, colors, and creeds still come to America for the opportunity of a lifetime.

When I was a teenager, we had a black woman working for us. This was during the height of integration on all levels in Georgia. I remember clearly one afternoon when her son came to tell her that he had bought his first home. He was so proud and his mother said something like, “But that’s a white neighborhood; you can’t live there.” He replied, “Momma, I can afford that house and we are going to live there.” That exchange represented the change in times.

Fast forwarding to today, embattled Governor Rod Blagojevich appoints Roland Burris to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Burris is black and a former attorney general. At the appointment, Representative Bobby Rush — who incidentally beat State Senator Barack Obama in his run for Congress — takes the podium and declares that Senator Harry Reid is like George Wallace if he tries to “block the doorway of the U.S. Senate” and not seat Roland Burris. You can’t make this stuff up.

All the controversy covers up bigger issues for the soon-to-be president. First, all this bickering in Illinois and related to Illinois reminds people that Obama is a Chicago politician, not some guy who is above the fray. Secondly, how do we criticize Barack Obama and his administration? Will we be hung up in name-calling for the next four years?

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