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Earnest Harris

Earnest Harris

Posted January 20, 2009 | 12:09 PM (EST)

We Are Not Post Racial Just Yet


What a fantastic few days this has been. I am still on a natural high as John Denver would say. Now that President-Elect Obama has gloriously become President Obama we can finally turn our attention to the real work of getting this country back on track and into that famously promised "post racial America."

I, like most people, am realistic enough to know that President Obama cannot fix everything that is wrong with our economy and country. Sure there will be those who are looking for him to fail, waiting for those first missteps. But I think even they can't expect one man to fix in a few months or even a few years what has taken eight years to mess up. But I am indeed amazed at the number of people, in the media and that I know personally, who truly do expect America to be now and forever free of its ethnic, religious and racial differences. And this is not coming solely from White Americans who some might think are doing a bit of wishful thinking that minorities can now stop complaining about getting a fair shot. I have also come across some Black Americans who seem to believe that President Obama is going to make everything OK for everybody, or that all Black people's credit scores are now raised as one comedian joked... Doesn't Obama doesn't have enough on his shoulders?

But frankly I have to admit, I too used to think the success of one Black man (and I refer to him as Black since he himself chooses that descriptive) would mean that all Black people would rise with him, that when strangers looked at me from now on, they would think Obama and not Willie Horton or some other more recent negative association. I clearly remember the day after Obama's surprising win in the Iowa caucus, the win that caused most of us to believe that where we are today was possible, how when I was out in public I walked a bit taller, a bit prouder, feeling that everyone who saw me surely must be thinking positive thoughts about me and all Black people. After all, the Obamas proved that all of us were not bad, that some of us were even educated and people to be admired. But that feeling did not last long for me. As the campaign waged on and all the ugliness of the Jeremiah Wright affair, the rise of PUMA, the William Ayers mess, the Bill Clinton coded words after New Hampshire and in North Carolina, after all that, any notion that race was not going to play a factor in Obama's life, and mine as well, was washed away for the most part.

And still, like so many others, I couldn't help myself, there was still a bit of hope, of the belief that the oft-mentioned post-racial America Obama was supposed to usher in, was real. Is it real? Is it coming?

Well, I can definitely say that it is not here yet. But that doesn't mean that it's not on the way or that the inauguration of President Obama, and the multiracial coalition of people who helped him get to this day, are not signs that our nation is indeed moving on a path to that promised land. I do believe that we are undeniably closer to that ideal now than we have ever been in our country's history. And that is certainly worth celebrating.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Post racial we are not. Even President Obama has acknowledged that one man, one term of office, is not enough to change our history and the stain of race. The very fact that a whole new level of heated and passionate racial debate has arisen in the blogosphere related to whether Obama is America's first Black President or whether he is our first Mixed or Bi-Racial President is proof that race still matters to many people. To many the distinction is incredibly important, some believing the debate itself to be another example of those in the majority trying to take something away from Black people by denying that Obama is fully Black. But whatever one thinks about the debate, the fact that it is being waged is the key. And as I said before I have even encountered blacks who act like President Obama's swearing in and triumph means that they have the right to demand anything they want. I have seen examples of this on more than one occasion. The most recent involved a young Black man who was hawking his band's music CD to passersby on the street in downtown Burbank. When people, including me, wouldn't stop and heed his call to buy his CD, he actually invoked Obama to try to shame us into buying. He addressed me particularly, angrily actually, that times were different and Obama's election meant that I should feel obligated to support him as a sign of solidarity. The fact that he was being an ass or that I, and others passing, simply might not be interested in his music at that time weren't even considerations to him. All that mattered was his expectation that Obama's victory meant that we should all want to buy his album since he was, like Obama, Black.

It matters greatly that we now have, in The White House, a person and a family that has dark skin pigmentation, if only because it allow us to tell our kids that they too can be President some day and really mean it. We can now say America has indeed, at least in this case, in this ideal, lived up to its promise that anyone can ascend to the highest office. But incidents like the guy on the street and the recent police shootings of young black men in San Francisco, Houston and Philadelphia, are certainly proof that the mere existence of President Obama cannot lull us into believing that we have reached the pinnacle of racial progress in America. It is true that the only time we will surely know we have become post racial is when the election of a Black person, a Hispanic person, a Muslim, or a woman, is not really newsworthy by itself. Oh, do I look forward to that time.

But for now I am, like most of you, thrilled that we have at least gotten to where we are today, able to witness what we saw on Inauguration Day. We may not be post racial yet and Obama hasn't solved our economic crisis in his first days in office, but what we are witnessing every time we see him and Michelle and those darling girls actually living in The White House is a seismic shift that, at the very least, lets us know if we continue to work at it (and we all have to do our part as Obama said) that the America we want, that post racial America, will get here, and maybe even sooner than we expect.