Clearly, the answer to that question is both yes and no. Yes, there has been absolute progress — if only for the few. No, relatively speaking, in that biased attitudes and discriminatory behavior still exist — evident both during Obama’s campaign and particularly subsequent to his election — that leave in doubt the quantity and quality of the progress the nation has made since Douglass’ speech. Granted the volume of words, both pro and con, produced in the past couple of years have left many people confused about the current status of things given the continuance of widespread disparities throughout society respecting access to and the allocation of goods and services.
After describing his trepidation arising out of the newspaper and poster announcements indicating that he was to deliver an oration, after pointing out the inherent contradiction of inviting him into a “grand illuminated temple of liberty” to join the mostly Caucasian celebrants in joyous anthems that abounded in “inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony,” Douglass went on to detail the distance he had traveled from the slave plantation to the platform on which he then stood. He was both astonished and grateful for his achievement. What he wanted his audience to understand, if they could, was that the Fourth was the birthday of their national independence, not his, one of the reasons he spoke on the fifth and not on the fourth.
Theirs was an independence, he said, brought about by their secession from the British Empire through force of arms resulting in a kind of political freedom, even if what they wrote in their founding documents was still a long way from being realized in both word and deed; unrealized perhaps because of the inadequacies and insecurities of those charged with interpreting a Constitution for “We the People” still with us today.
Too easily, he intimated in a message that has import for 21st-century America and the desire among some for an originalist rendering of the meaning of that document, we willingly overlook the fact that at the time that particular document was ratified, the society that would become a new nation, in Lincoln’s words “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” had already been up and running for 184 years. During that time, whatever cultural baggage the colonists brought with them was refashioned into a fully functioning social order with its own values, mores, laws (one of its first was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793), classes, objectives and goals, and in terms of expansion was already beginning to evince its own imperial tendencies.
And then Douglass abruptly changed direction, saying, “Fellow citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! Whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, today, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them.” But that was then. Now we must ask whether the nation is a prisoner of its heritage, or dare we evince the audacity to hope that one day the American Dream might become the reality implied in Emma Lazarus’ poem attached to the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor?
Clearly, that dream cannot be realized unless and until there is a meaningful redistribution of power in this society. For as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, holding an oppressed people responsible “for their own social regeneration … without power is a mockery and a farce.” Yes, reallocation, he wrote, does mean “the growth of initiative among Negroes, the spread of independent thought, [and an] expanding consciousness of manhood” that fosters the determination of their own destiny.
With redistribution of the resources of power we might better counter the consequences of schools that push out those students whose life experiences are not addressed by the curricula or texts used therein. Where will they learn to utilize modern technology so as not to become victims of the digital divide?
What about housing policies and real estate practices that contribute to slum formation masked as preserving the value of property by keeping out “undesirables” at the same time they perpetuate a “genteel” species of racism, sexism, et al. Or the disparities we find in health care that have more to do with where and how it is delivered? Then, too, there is a criminal justice system the quality of whose justice is a function of the client’s ability to pay. In short, what we appear to have here is less a democracy than it is an obstacle course and a scavenger hunt whose rules are not always articulated in advance or reserved only for the cognoscenti.
These and other aspects, organizations and institutions that influence our lives and that are animated by disingenuous assumptions about race coupled with prejudicial attitudes (recall, for example, the societal response to Michelle Obama’s comments about her new-found pride in America) raise questions about the continued possibility of being different without being deemed deviant simply because the opinions you express critique the conventional wisdom. Granted the values of materialism are one thing, and for some a good thing; but are they appropriate as a guiding force in the conduct of human affairs?
It is not that I am seeking excuses for aberrant behavior here that has us living in a fear-based culture sending all too many of us to the gun store in pursuit of the illusion of self-protection.
Rather, like the late Harold Cruse, I find myself asking more and more often whether we do understand and have the political will to do anything about the ineffectuality of preserving, protecting and defending without further examination certain beliefs and practices that no longer, if they ever did, describe the “America” in which we live.
This society, Cruse wrote in 1967, one that “idealizes the rights of the individual above everything else, is in reality, a nation dominated by the social power of groups, classes, in-groups and cliques — both ethnic and religious. The individual in America has few rights that are not backed up by the political, economic and social power of one group or another. Hence the individual Negro has, proportionately, very few rights indeed because his ethnic group (whether or not he actually identifies with it) has very little political, economic or social power (beyond moral grounds) to wield.”
This particular observation, and the condition and position (still moving from the periphery to the center as singlets, not as a people) of black people, as Malcolm spoke of in his writings and teachings at the Audubon Ballroom, make clear that integration, a term much discussed, invariably and inappropriately misused in a society still desegregating, might not ever come if the comments and activities of certain of our divines, politicians and public pundits are taken at face value. Yes, I have heard them describe themselves as entertainers. But what is funny about the use of pejorative stereotypes to score a following among those who do not want to accept that society is changing and that the way things used to be are ending?
Is this idea so difficult, as Max Planck said one time, that all of the supporters thereof will have to die off before there is a new day in Babylon?
In short, beyond symbolism, and its utilization as role model for oncoming generations, what difference has Obama’s presence in the White House really made in the character and conscience of the United States of America?
What do you think? Dr. William M. King is a professor of Afroamerican Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.