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How Much Have We Really Changed?

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Once again the eyes of the world are upon us as America swears in its first African-American president--and how fitting that it comes a day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This historic moment has again paved the way for hours of commentary, emotion and tears, all suggesting that change has finally come to America.

I, too, have been incredibly moved by this moment and captivated by these events. My memories of these days will stick with me forever. But there's something amiss.

I fear that our change is only a mirage.

I don't intend to be a downer on the party, but I just can't shake my skepticism that America's election of its first black president is a strong sign that the nation has shed its racial baggage. How is it possible that the root causes of hundreds of years of racial strife and inequity could be wiped clean by the incredible saga culminating with the inauguration of Barack Obama? Certainly, it is a laudable achievement, perhaps the most moving we will witness in our lifetimes. But c'mon, let's get real.

As Americans, we seem far better at touting how far we've moved past our racist legacy than actually dealing with our racial problems. Wasn't change supposed to come in 1865 when the Great Emancipator freed the slaves and effectively ended the Civil War? Didn't we witness history again nearly a century later when "separate but equal" ended and black children were permitted entry into formerly all-white schools under armed guard? And didn't the blood and tears shed during the 1960s, when marches and demonstrations led to sweeping civil rights legislation, ultimately deliver change? Many of us thought so.

Quite frankly, I'm not sure that anything really has changed. I'd argue that the fear and mistrust toward African Americans and the notion that black folks lack intelligence and moral character--feelings that led to the centuries of racial discrimination in this country--are still present in some form today. While we've ended legalized slavery, segregation and disenfranchisement, it seems that we still willfully choose to segregate from African Americans, limit their political might and hold them in bondage. Consider that Chicago, the city of Obama, is America's most racially segregated city. The presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 reminded us that African Americans still have challenges exercising their right to vote. And black folks are far more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts, even when they commit the same crimes.

Perhaps the only thing Obama's election proves is that, as a nation, we can elect a black man--or more precisely, that we can elect this particular black man. There may not have been another black man alive who could accomplish, at this time, what Obama has accomplished. And despite Obama's groundbreaking victory, there were numerous signs that Obama's race may have been a barrier for some voters. Consider that McCain won 56 of 102 counties in Obama's home state. And in all 102 Illinois counties, Obama received a lower percentage of the vote in the presidential election than did fellow Democrat Dick Durbin in his senate race. In some predominantly white counties in southern Illinois, Obama routinely polled at least 15 points behind Durbin. Similar trends were seen in Obama's home city. Obama won all 50 Chicago wards but did not poll as well as Durbin in 22 wards--found mostly on Chicago's North and Southwest sides. In the predominantly white and historically Democratic 19th Ward on the far Southwest Side, Obama won just 45 of the ward's 66 precincts, while Durbin took all 66 precincts capturing no less than 62 percent of the vote in each one.

Remember, early in Obama's campaign, when some people questioned whether he was black enough? What people were really saying is that Obama didn't look like most black folks to them. Maybe that fact was a concern for many black people who were hesitant to support Obama until it looked like he might actually have a shot at winning. And maybe that fact was a comfort for many white folks, even those who backed Obama with far more passion and energy than black supporters. But the bottom line is that Obama's election may not mean that America's view of African Americans has changed simply because most Americans, black folks included, don't view most African Americans the way they view Obama.

The change that we seem so prideful about in this moment won't truly happen until we can look at all black Americans with the same trust, respect and admiration that we share for Obama. Many African Americans, particularly young folks, have been encouraged by these historic events. Obama has given them hope that they can achieve their dreams. The rest of America needs to view Obama as an example of what is possible for all black Americans--even when they flunk out of school, abuse drugs, have children out of wedlock and commit crimes.

Obama may have graduated from Harvard, cut his political teeth for years in the Illinois Senate, bedazzled America in the summer of 2004 on his way to the U.S. Senate, and energized a nation on his way to the White House. But before all of that, he was raised in a single-parent home, experimented with drugs, and struggled at times as a rebellious teenager--particularly with his racial identity. The challenges that he has faced and overcome are shared by countless other black men. But how many of us see Obama when we look in the faces of black men who've stumbled? How many of us see future presidents of the United States when we see black teens with their low-rise, baggy jeans in our classrooms or black men loitering on street corners, rapping in music videos or wearing handcuffs on the evening news?

America, if you truly want to be the change that we seek--as Obama might say--then work on changing your perceptions and expectations of black America. Look no further than your president for help. If Obama can achieve, there should be no doubts that we all can.