A Path Beyond Grievance
It's been said that the ascendancy of Barack Obama signals the beginning of a "post-racial" America.
I wish. What we have witnessed, I think, is something less profound but still hugely significant. Obama's election means that in America, including at the highest levels of our politics, race is no longer an automatic deal-breaker. That's a major step forward in the thinking of white America.
For black America, Obama may be the harbinger of a different transformation: the movement away from what might be called the civil rights paradigm. Since the astounding success of the civil rights movement nearly half a century ago, America's black leadership has been a civil rights leadership, focused almost exclusively on grievance -- America owes us the right to vote, to enjoy places of public accommodation, to attend nonsegregated schools, to be free of the laws that underlie American-style apartheid.
America listened, and changed.
What more recent black leaders have not acknowledged is that there are some problems that the grievance model cannot address. The schools black children attend don't work as well as they should -- but most often for reasons that have less to do with white attitudes than with our own. Many black children -- and too many of their parents -- don't value education. If they do, they see it as a debt owed rather than a prize to be earned. Their resulting undereducation renders them specially vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the job market. Black communities are beset by crime and violence but, again, less because of racism than because of lack of discipline in those communities. One key reason for this failure of discipline is the dissolution of black families -- not because of discrimination but because black Americans lead the nation in fatherlessness, having allowed marriage to fall to an all-time-low priority.
Obama tried to talk about some of this during his campaign, frequently pointing out that government can do little to improve education unless parents take control of the television, read to their children and check their homework.
The point is not to deny that America's black communities still suffer horribly from poor education, dim employment prospects and other crippling (and heritable) ills but to observe that these problems no longer lend themselves to civil rights -- or grievance-based -- solutions.
How has Obama come to see so clearly the need for black America's active and confident participation in solving its problems?
First, he is supremely confident in his own ability to succeed at whatever he sets out to do, and his experience may lead him to see the power of self-confidence in general. Second, he grew up without the encumbrance of a personal link to American slavery. It is easy even for the descendants of slavery to forget how powerfully that not-so-distant experience guides our sense of destiny. We tend to see slavery as a palpable, almost genetic, experience; that is one reason so many black Americans initially had trouble accepting Obama, with his Kenyan father and white American mother, as authentic.
But while our handed-down "remembrance" of slavery makes us super-conscious of (and, we imagine, steels us against) white America's racist possibilities, it does two other things as well. It leads us too easily to a racial explanation of all that goes wrong in our community, and it encumbers us with the burden of doubt as to what this country will let us do -- and be.
Obama certainly did not escape American racism; his skin saw to that. But he did escape the encumbrance of "genetic" slavery; the people who raised him saw to that.
You begin to understand what a different script he follows when he tells you about his upbringing. His mother resolved early on to get him back to the States from her overseas work. Why? "My son's an American, and he needs to know what that means," he quotes her as saying. He recalls his (white) grandfather taking him to watch the recovery of a U.S. astronaut team, waving a miniature flag and remarking that "Americans can do anything they put their minds to."
How many African American parents proffer their children another script: They won't let you succeed (except as entertainers and athletes). If you expect to do well elsewhere, you have to be twice as good.
We imagine that we are preparing our children for the real world. But is not Obama's world also real?
His ascendancy to the most powerful political position in the world does not mean an end to black problems -- including the problem of racial discrimination. But it may allow our children to begin to see life as a series of problems and possibilities and not just a list of grievances.
The writer, a longtime Post columnist who retired in 2005, is president of Baby Steps, a parent training and empowerment program based in Okolona, Miss.