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Obama Will Be the First Black President, Not the Black President First

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By Emanuel Cleaver II
Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The black D.C. cabdriver and I connected immediately when it became clear that he simply couldn't suppress his elation about the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. He told me that he had recently quashed some barbershop Obama-bashing arising from what some saw as Obama's failure to name enough blacks to his Cabinet. "I told these barbershop politicos," the cabbie said, "just wait until after he is sworn in, and then he will be free to do the black thing."

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I winced and, rather clumsily, tried to explain that Obama will be the first black president, not the black president first. While it isn't my intention to hold up any critic of the president-elect to censure, I want to remind all those who strongly support the president-elect and wish desperately for him to succeed: If you like the honey, don't kick over the beehive.

Since Obama's historic Nov. 4 victory, there has been much discussion in the media suggesting that he faces a plate filled not only with issues related to the slumping economy and other urgent national challenges but also a hefty portion of the extravagant expectations of African Americans and other minority groups. Some, it seems, would rather put the new president into a pressure cooker instead of a melting pot.

I know something about what Obama faces. In 1991, I was elected Kansas City's first black mayor. I and more than 400 other African American mayors who served during the most diverse period in the political history of America's large cities experienced a similar, and understandable, unreasonableness from brothers and sisters who saw in our election an opportunity at last to get a slice of the American pie. Obama will fall short of fulfilling the considerable hopes and dreams of the minorities who supported him, just as we could not fulfill those of ours.

To be sure, he will do all he can. Just as the black mayors of the '90s appointed able blacks to positions that were previously beyond their reach, championed capital projects in often-ignored and ailing parts of their cities, and included minorities in municipal economic opportunities, President Obama will certainly be attentive to the unique needs of the nation's neglected. Clearly, the goal of the Obama administration will be to destroy, not supervise, any government impulse to favor one group of Americans over others.

But brothers and sisters of hue, we must be candid: Race relations in America are far from sublime. Despite Obama's election, there are still Americans who, like the ole Missouri mule, are awful backward about going forward. It would be absurd not to expect high-profile acts of racism to continue to occur, just as always. Obama's administration won't have the power to prevent them; no administration could. Yes, such situations will now be addressed by an Obama-appointed attorney general, but they also must continue to be dealt with by civil rights organizations and, frankly, by each of us. The duty of the many cannot become the responsibility of the one, even if the one is a black president.

Obama surely knows that he owes enormous gratitude to the huge numbers of black Americans who toiled in his campaign and came out to the polls to help to elect him. I think every African American supporter of Obama can safely assume that Obama will do everything within his power to create a level playing field for all Americans by ensuring that they have a government that is just and fair.

But it is important to note that Obama will not be the nation's highest-profile civil rights leader. He will be the leader of the free world.

We must keep that in mind. Barack Obama cannot both agitate and legislate from the Oval Office. A horse cannot pull while kicking, and Obama has much pulling on his agenda. He will need to pull the U.S. economy out of the tank, U.S. troops out of Iraq and health-care costs back down to earth.

At this moment, the people of color who love this great nation are a part of something thrilling and exalting. Most of us thought that we would never see a black president in our lifetimes. Our coming together this past November was a beginning; staying together through the tough times ahead will be progress; and working together to build bridges, not walls, will be the sign that we are creating a change all can depend on.

The writer, a Democrat, represents Missouri's 5th Congressional District.


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