I awoke yesterday to two widely divergent stories about race in America. The first - a deeply disturbing montage of cross-country video clips - illustrated the worst of racial prejudices against Sen. Obama. And as the narrative worsened with each clip, I felt the fear of where our nation might really stand on race grow exponentially in the pit of my stomach. Yet nothing was as convincing in fighting back that fear than the second story I encountered, coming from The New York Times, which reported a profound turning of the tides for African-Americans in politics particularly amongst constituents who are overwhelmingly white.
Across the U.S., African-Americans are making hopeful strides in local and regional politics. According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 30 percent of the nation's 622 black state legislators represented predominantly white districts in 2007, up from about 16 percent in 2001. And according to the Times, over the last decade, "About 200 black politicians have won positions once held by whites in legislatures and city halls in states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee."
While Sen. Obama's run for the presidency has garnered much of the media spotlight, there's an undercurrent of black political empowerment that is changing the faces and voices of our democracy, from the grassroots on up.
For those of us who are rightly terrified amid the recent video clips slandering Sen. Obama on account of his race, there are many signs of hope that our nation's prejudices are not as widespread as we may fear. That the civil rights movement has made such profound changes to our culture that electing an African-American to represent a community is a choice that thousands of white Americans have increasingly made. And this is the great thing about local politics: as a more diverse array of leaders are elected at the community level, the public's comfort level with seeing diversity among their leadership increases, and our democracy becomes evermore representative, from city councils and county commissions to congress and the presidency.
This is the driving force behind my own life's work to positively transform our democracy by propelling a diverse array of women across the country into the leadership pipeline, simultaneously changing cultural conceptions of what a leader looks like. It's what will allow candidates and constituents to finally talk about issues and agenda instead of race or gender. That's the historical nature of what The White House Project is doing, and the feeling that is catching on across the country.
The deeply racist commentary and xenophobic accusations surrounding Sen. Obama are incredibly disheartening and act as a critical reminder that the struggle for civil rights is far from over in our country. Yet it's important that we counter the fear that such displays evoke by channeling our concerns into a committed and passionate effort to make our democracy more representative.