“Find a room to lock yourself in and close the door/ Its some heavy concepts that we gotta explore/ We gotta strip the word down rugged and raw/ The rhetoric of Martin King just ain't around no more.”
-Nas, "Y'all My N****s"
There’s a good reason that everybody made such a big deal about it, other than the fact that it was a national catharsis, a collective sigh of relief that finally the crisis of a country, which was its leadership itself, was departing. For those of our generation, the moment was historic as much for being the end of the Era of Hopelessness in which we came of age as anything else, but, for America, it was historic because now, finally, 45 years after a technicality known as the Civil Rights Act, we could say that the civil rights movement had ended, had succeeded.
That’s the narrative we got anyway, and, of course, it is not entirely untrue. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is a great victory for the cause of racial equality and the breaking down of the artificial barriers that have pitted generations of Americans against each other. It is a uniquely American narrative, grossly improbable even in much of the so-called democratic world, where deep-seated nationalistic tendencies are at odds with an idea that is true in America: that the son of an immigrant of a minority race could rise to the highest level of government. So no, we must not discount the victory that it represents.
But to say that Barack Obama’s election is the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement is to remain stuck in the twentieth-century notion that the movement for civil rights is a singular event that essentially ended in 1964 and whose great cause was desegregation. It ignores the evolution of the understanding of human rights to include education and health care. It ignores the continued discrimination against the lesbian and gay community. It forsakes some of Dr. King’s own causes: the eradication of poverty and the propagation of peace. The Civil Rights Movement may have ended, but only because bestowing the label of civil rights upon a cause these days is the surest way to ensure that it is given token recognition and nothing more. The fight for social justice is, as it has been, still underway.
This was a dominant theme of Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s excellent convocation last Friday, where she questioned how a movement for social justice could present itself in an Obama presidency, with President Obama himself as such a vocal agent of change. Part of Professor Harris-Lacewell’s advice to students was to embrace a cause that has no chance of success and fight for that cause. In an era where we have quite a few causes occupying our national resources that must succeed, this is a harsh request indeed, but it is not without necessity.
In the wake of President Obama’s pronouncement that “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics,” some of the greatest wielders of worn-out dogmas leapt on the bandwagon to declare that now is a time to lay aside radical ideologies and focus on concrete change in Washington. While I agree that far-right ideology is not what we need to effect change, since it is, by definition, conservative in nature, I’m curious as to what sort of progress we are supposed to make without progressive ideology. The call to timidity will be strong, and the temptation will be great to avoid the bold moves that this country needs to align reality with its vision of itself.
Nonetheless, I think that President Obama recognizes the difficulty of a large-scale progressive overhaul of American institutions, but his appeal to the somewhat forgotten American ideal of hard work in his inaugural address suggests that it is something that he intends to undertake. For those concerned that the man is full of empty promises, recognize that the only thing that is going to fulfill these promises is an appeal to progressive solutions and not a subtly veiled right-wing appeal to changing as little as possible. So what is there to be done?
Well, the first step is not to see the Obama presidency as the culmination of civil rights, but rather as an opportunity, unthinkable for the past eight years, to engage a president who is open to the radical idea of civil rights, a concept which, like the nation, has changed in the past 45 years. If we want to truly provide equal rights to all citizens, the places to begin are health care and education, not by casting aside these liberal ideals as a celebratory measure of the so-called end to civil rights.
-Kyle Kramer is a Carletonian