The unchallenged article of faith is that the election of President Barack Obama fulfills Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that the content of character should trump skin color. King uttered the words in his March on Washington speech in 1963. We heard it over and over again in the march up to the King national holiday, Jan. 19, and Obama's inauguration the next day.
Obama's election did show that millions of whites could strap racial blinders around their eyes and punch the ticket to vote an African American to the world's most powerful political post. King would almost certainly glow with approval. But there are a couple of troubling caveats that mar America's great racial leap forward.
Obama won in large part because he did what no other Democratic presidential candidate did, and that includes Bill Clinton. He turned his presidential campaign into a virtual holy crusade by African American voters to get him in the White House. The staggering 96 percent of the black vote he got made the crucial difference in the key Democratic primaries and later in nailing down the victory over Republican rival John McCain in the must win states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
At the same time, Obama's allure to young, white, college-educated professionals was overstated. McCain got 53 percent of their vote. He trounced Obama among North and South rural voters, and blue-collar whites. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of more than 400 counties from New York to Mississippi. Overall, he got less than a third of southern white votes. The racial fault lines are still tightly drawn within a wide segment of the electorate.
A mid-September 2008 survey also found that a significant percentage of whites who said they'd vote for Obama also said that blacks were more crime-prone and less industrious than whites. There were several ways to look at this seeming racial paradox. One is that these Obama backers were so fed up with Bush policies and a battered economy that Obama offered a change and a lifeline. Another was that he presented a race-neutral soothing departure from the perceived race-baiting antics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. And yet another was that he simply was sufficiently racially ambiguous enough not to pose any real threat.
In other words, he was seen as a racial exception. That's the penchant for some whites to make artificial distinctions between supposedly good and bad blacks.
These explanations don't point to a profound and benign sea change in racial attitudes, let alone tell why negative racial notions could still be rife among many white Obama supporters. The reports that Obama has received more taunts and physical threats than any other president-elect is another troubling indication that an untold number of Americans still can't stomach the thought of an African American in the White House.
The hoisting of Obama to a rarefied political or non-racial pedestal is the exact opposite of what King had in mind. In that same March on Washington speech, what people forget or deliberately distort is that King talked much about the legacy of segregation, bigotry and discrimination that trapped thousands of poor blacks and that offered no easy resolution. Nearly a half-century after King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the black poor are still just as tightly trapped in the grip of poverty and discrimination that King warned about.
On the eve of the King national holiday and Obama's inauguration, the Boston-based research and economic-justice advocacy group, United for a Fair Economy, released its sixth annual King Day report. It found that the gaping disparities in income, wealth, employment, quality and availability of housing, decent schools, and health care between blacks, minorities and whites has grown even wider.
Countless government reports and studies, and the National Urban League's 2007 State of Black America report also found that discrimination and poverty are still major barriers for millions. And it's not just the black poor that bear the brunt of discrimination. President Bush even wondered out loud recently why there were so few black reporters covering his press conferences.
Obama has publicly bristled at the notion that the Civil Rights Movement is outdated, or worse, that he somehow supplants the ongoing work of civil-rights leaders. He has repeatedly praised past civil-rights leaders for their heroic battle against racial injustice.
It was not simply showy campaign symbolism when Obama pegged his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech to the 45th anniversary of the March on Washington last August. This was a fitting tribute to the Civil Rights Movement that challenged the nation to make King's dream of justice and equality a reality.
Obama faced that challenge as a community organizer, civil-rights attorney, during his stints in the Illinois Legislature and in the U.S. Senate. He faces that same challenge in the White House.
There's still much to overcome.