Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Premature Post Racialism

The election of Barack Obama does not signal the end of racism, nor does it, despite the assertions of so many, indicate that we are living in a post-racial era. But it does indicate that we have entered a new phase of America's tortured history with race.

Another example of the strides we have taken comes from the most unlikely place, Philadelphia, Mississippi, in Neshoba County. Philadelphia was the scene of perhaps the most notorious race murders during the civil rights era, the killing of civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney during Mississppi's Freedom Summer in 1964 (this is the story that provides the backdrop for the deeply flawed movie Mississippi Burning). Philadelphia also was where Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for the Presidency in 1980, which may be excusable, but at that kickoff he gave a speech in support of state's rights, which, less than a generation removed from Freedom Summer, was and is inexcusable. A remarkable thing happened recently in Philadelphia. The city elected its first black mayor, a Pentecostal minister and former city manager named James Young. Philadelphia is 56% white (though Young only garnered a third of the white vote) and it does not appear that Young's election will raise any racist ripples.

We should not overstate what Young's election means. (This year Montgomery County High School in Georgia held separate but equal proms for white and black students, as it has just about every year since the schools there were desegregated in 1971.) But we also should not understate what it all means. As the civil rights activist Charles McDoo has often said, those who say things haven't gotten any better were not there. Things have gotten better. but that does not mean we have gone far enough. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that we have.

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