Does Obama's Success Mean Blacks Have Overcome?

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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It has been wonderful to see people of all races celebrate the victory of Barack Obama. His advance does represent an important step forward for African Americans. But those who take his victory to mean that blacks have overcome are seeing the world through very rose colored glasses.

Obama's victory comes on the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on the riots of the 1960s. That report can be used to assess how far blacks in general have come as opposed to how much one black elected official has achieved. In 1968, the Kerner Commission identified the criminal justice system, employment, housing and education as areas of significant black-white disparities that needed good public policy and large public investments to move us to an equal and integrated society. Sadly, many of the disparities the Commission highlighted 40 years ago remain with us today.

There may be less of the day-to-day police brutality that led to riots in several cities in the 1960s, but relations between blacks and the police are still not good. The cases of Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo and others still cause many blacks to fear the police rather than see the police as a force promoting safety and security. Further, many also see our criminal justice system as a profoundly anti-black institution. For example, The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published an investigative report showing that for similar drug offenses blacks in Cleveland were more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Even in some cases where whites possessed more drugs and had more serious criminal records they received more leniency than blacks. There is much more that needs to be done in the area of criminal justice before we can say that blacks have overcome.

In 1968, blacks were about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. In 2008, blacks are about twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. The crisis joblessness in black communities remains severe. Improving the educational outcomes of blacks will help in this area, but there remains significant anti-black attitudes in the labor market. My current research shows that while college-educated blacks have similar employment rates as whites, as one moves down the educational ladder the racial disparities grow rapidly. The black-white disparities are most severe for male high school dropouts. For some reason, employers see white male high school dropouts as much more desirable employees than black male high school dropouts. In a color-blind world, one high school dropout would be as good or as bad as the next, but we don't live in that world yet. In the American labor market, it helps to be white especially if one is less-educated.

Our schools and neighborhoods were largely separate and unequal in 1968, and they are still separate and unequal today. Barack Obama served Illinois as a senator. The Illinois Education Research Council has done important work on race and teacher quality [PDF, p. 24] in that state. The Council ranked all high schools by teacher quality using 2002 data. It found that nearly half of all black high school students were in the schools in the bottom 25 percent of the teacher-quality rankings. Only about one-sixth of white students were in these low teacher-quality schools. We can't say that we have overcome when blacks students are still segregated into the worse schools in America.

We have not overcome, but it is important to also acknowledge the progress that blacks have made. We know that blacks are not as educated as we would like them to be, but we should also acknowledge that the black population is more educated than it has ever been. In 2006, the year of the most recent data from the Digest of Education Statistics, 9.6 percent of the bachelor's degrees given nationally went to blacks. This rate was up from 7.9 percent in 1996, and it was the highest level on record. There is a substantial number of blacks in the American middle and upper class, and a large number of black elected officials. These are some of the positive developments that we have seen since the Kerner Commission report.

Obama's victory represents a significant advance for America on its path to racial equality. But we aren't there yet. The Kerner Commission report reminds us that while we have made great strides, there is still a long way to go. As Miriam Makeka sang in Portuguese--"a luta continua"--the struggle continues.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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