Open University

Reality Check


by Melissa Harris-LacewellThe Bears are going to the Super Bowl! Although no longer living in Chicago, I am cemented enough to the city that I am ridiculously excited about it. But I must admit that the best part of this new Super Bowl shuffle is its that it has distinctly more soul. Two African American head coaches are going meet one another in this great American dance of masculinity. No matter what happens (although we know the Bears will win) a brother is going to hoist that trophy in triumph. And, Barack Obama is running for president. He is really running for president. Obama's is not an internal party strategy to keep Democrats focused on a racial agenda (Jackson '84). It is not a move to secure a high level appointment if a Democrat takes the White House (Braun '04). It is not a delusional attempt to push a single issue (Keyes '00). It is not even an attempt to claim a national bully pulpit for a few months (Sharpton '04). Obama is really running for the presidency. And a black man is going to coach the winning team at the Super Bowl.

Undoubtedly some in America might imagine it is now time to pack up the issue of race. With such powerful symbols of unfettered ascension by black men it must appear that intelligence, hard work, moderate political views, and respectable behavior are enough to ensure full access to the American dream regardless of racial identity.

But in the spirit of tonight's State of the Union address I thought it might be useful to do a reality of check on the state of black America. Although African Americans have made steady gains in income over the past 50 years, the wealth gap between blacks and whites is growing. Today the median wealth of white families is more than ten times that of black families. This means that the black middle class remains significantly more vulnerable both personal and exogenous shocks. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped usher in full citizenship for black Americans, policies implemented in the last 20 years have eroded some of these gains. Obstacles to voter registration, purging of voter rolls, and ex-felon disenfranchisement have helped reopen the participation gap between blacks and whites. African American health indicators from infant mortality, to hypertension, to untreated psychological distress, to cancer mortality, to HIV infection rates, to uninsured status indicate that black America is sick and dying across an alarming divide from whites. African Americans continue to be overrepresented in the armed services, shouldering a disproportionate burden of the war in Iraq. Blacks continue to earn a fraction of every white dollar earned, continue to be more harshly penalized in the criminal justice system for the same offenses committed by whites, and continue to be vastly underrepresented in business, politics, and evening television.

Symbols are powerful and important. I will be thrilled to watch a black man win the Super Bowl. I am thrilled to watch Barack campaign for the presidency. But I will not be seduced into imagining that this is the end of race. Too much is at stake for too many.

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