Historians: No one moment can overcome America's struggle with racism

Historians in the News

... Occasionally, one is privileged to live through a moment when history doesn't just open wide like a door on a hinge, but you know it for what it is even then, even as it it is happening, so you can fix the details in your mind, rehearse the stories you will tell your grandchildren someday. The night Barack Obama was elected president was one of those moments.

But what did that tell us about who we are, what we are, where we are on the road to racial reconciliation? What, indeed, will we tell the grandchildren about that moment we saw?


Dr. Donald Spivey, professor of history and Cooper Fellow at the University of Miami, says what he saw that night forced him to reconsider some basic assumptions. 'One of my students said, `You've written extensively on the racism of this nation and said we would never have a black president. So what do you say?' I said, 'I was wrong. And I was so glad to be wrong.' ''

''I was totally, absolutely surprised at Obama,'' says Dr. Howard Lindsey, assistant professor of history at DePaul University. ``If you talk to any black historian who said they could see this coming, tell them I said they're lying. Nobody, nobody I've talked to saw this coming. I live here in Chicago and I thought, `Man, look here, what're you doing? You've got a funny name, you're half white, and for some racists that's even worse than being black. And you're going to go against Clinton? C'mon! I thought he would be another Jesse Jackson, he would be a protest candidate, and after a few weeks we'd all follow Hillary.''

''It has to give you a sense of hope,'' says Spivey, who worked on Obama's South Florida campaign, ''no matter how you analyze it and process it.'' America, he adds, deserves praise for being the kind of country where such a thing can happen. And yet, even this optimistic assessment is tempered, as if being both African and American has taught him that every hope has shadows. ''I don't go too far,'' he is careful to add. ``I don't go crazy. I still believe race and racism are a real problem in the USA.''

Lindsey, too, cautions against interpreting Obama's victory too broadly. The election, he says, ``caused me to recalibrate how white America looks at, or can look at, a single African American. But for the black masses, I'm still not convinced that America has changed its views that significantly.''

That view is echoed by Dr. Robin Kelley, professor of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. ''I don't think of African-American progress in terms of group progress,'' he says in an e-mail response. ``African-American elites have been making significant progress in the electoral sphere for some time, and sometimes they exercise power in ways that put them at odds with other people of color -- here in L.A. we have black city council people and other elected officials who are as oppressive as whites with regard to the treatment of Latinos, for example. I'm not sure that's progress.''

And therein, of course, lies the glaring fallacy, not simply of the debate over What Obama Means, but of the way the nation has framed and approached the question of race from its inception -- meaning the ancient tendency to believe black is black is black is black....

Read entire article at Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald

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