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The Conservative Curmudgeon
January 19, 2009

Can Obama’s Victory Move Us Toward a Common Vision for the Future?
by Allan C. Brownfeld

The election victory of Barack Obama provides evidence that race matters less in modern America than pessimists — particularly those self-proclaimed black spokesmen such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton — have told us.

In fact, Obama won a bigger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in l964, and more of the white vote than either John Kerry or Al Gore.

The election, notes The Economist, “is already affecting the way black Americans are portrayed in the news. Not long ago, when television producers wanted a talking head to represent black America, they would call up Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, who would always say the same thing about every problem: that white racism was to blame.

Now the spotlight is falling on black leaders who have led more than just protest marches. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, is a close friend of Mr. Obama. Artur Davis, who first met Mr. Obama at Harvard, plans to be the first black governor of Alabama, of all places. Valerie Jarrett, one of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers (who is also black), boasts that her boss will make public service cool, thereby attracting “the best talent into government.”

Advocates of a color-blind government — which rejects race-based affirmative action programs — also believe that the election results help their case. “If America can elect a black president,” declares The Economist, “racism must be less of an obstacle to black progress than previously thought. The time for racial preferences, they argue, must surely be past. Voters in Nebraska agree. On November 4, it became the first state in l2 years to ban official discrimination in favor of ‘under-represented’ minorities in hiring, contracting, or public education.”

Black commentator Juan Williams believes that, “The idea of black politics now tilts away from leadership based on voicing grievance, and identity politics based on victimization and anger. In its place is an era in which it is assumed that talented, tough people of any background will find a way to their rightful seat of power in mainstream political life. The Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons, and Rev. Jeremiah Wrights remain. But their influence and power fade to a form of nostalgia in a world of larger political agendas, such as a common American vision of setting the nation on a steady economic course and dealing with terrorists.

“The market has irrevocably shrunk for Sharpton-style tirades against ‘the man’ and ‘the system.’ The emphasis on racial threats and extortion-like demands — all aimed at maximizing white guilt as leverage for getting government and corporate money — has lost its moment.”

Williams asks: “How does anyone waste time on racial fantasies like reparations for slavery when there is a black man who earned his way into the White House?” He writes that, “With Mr. Obama as the head of government, discussion of racial problems now comes in the form of pragmatic discourse for how to best give all Americans opportunity, for example, how to improve schools.... In terms of racial politics, the arc of justice took a breathtaking leap.”

Another respected black commentator is William Raspberry, longtime Washington Post columnist and now president of Baby Steps, a parent training and empowerment program based in Okolona, Mississippi. Raspberry argues that, while the election may not usher in a “post-racial” America, it moves all of us significantly in that direction.

“For black America,” writes Raspberry, “Obama may be the harbinger of a different transformation: the movement away from what might be called the civil rights paradigm. Since the astounding success of the civil rights movement nearly half a century ago, America’s black leadership has been a civil rights leadership, focused almost exclusively on grievance — America owes us the right to vote, to enjoy places of public accommodation, to attend nonsegregated schools, to be free of the laws that underlie American-style apartheid. America listened, and changed.”

Black leaders have not, in Raspberry's view, acknowledged that there are some problems the grievance model cannot address. “The schools black children attend don’t work as well as they should,” he points out, “but most often for reasons that have less to do with white attitudes than with our own. Many black children — and too many of their parents — don’t value education. If they do, they see it as a debt owed rather than a prize to be earned. Their resulting undereducation renders them especially vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the job market. Black communities are beset by crime and violence, but, again, less because of racism than because of lack of discipline in those communities. One key reason for this failure of discipline is the dissolution of black families — not because of discrimination but because black Americans lead the nation in fatherlessness, having allowed marriage to fall to an all-time low priority.”

In the end, Raspberry argues, Barack Obama’s “ascendancy to the most powerful political position in the world does not mean an end to black problems — including the problem of racial discrimination. But it may allow our children to begin to see life as a series of problems and possibilities and not just a list of grievances.”

Electing a black president “strips us as African-Americans of every excuse, every ‘ism,’ every schism we’ve tried to hide behind,” Kenneth Stepney, Jr., 25, a student at Richmond's Virginia Union University told The Wall Street Journal. “He can do his part, but we have to do ours as well. We can’t hold the government responsible for our failings.”

It is a mistake, of course, to believe that the election of Barack Obama will resolve the serious problems within the black community. “What you are hearing today — good Lord, it is like Obama is the savior,” said Shelby Steele, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “Blacks still have a 70-percent illegitimacy rate; 50 percent of those incarcerated are still black. Obama will govern politically. He will address health care and have a tax plan. To look at him culturally is going to lead to expectations that will be disappointed.”

Economist Walter Williams notes that, “The fact that the nation elected a black president hopefully might turn our attention away from the false notion that discrimination explains the problems of a large segment of the black community to the real problems that have absolutely nothing to do with discrimination.”

Barack Obama's election may not eliminate the politics of identity and grievance overnight — but that destructive politics is clearly in retreat — a good thing for Americans of all backgrounds.

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 2008 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. Editors may use this column if this copyright information is included.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of The Lincoln Reveiw and a contributing editor to such publications as Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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