By John McWhorter
When Barack and Michelle Obama stood together on Inauguration Day watching the helicopter carrying the Bushes as they began their journey home to Texas, it was the first time we really felt as if we had a new President. But not just a new President, nor just a Democratic one, nor one who wasn't Bush. The main thing on Americans' minds, we can all admit, was that we had a black President.
Beyond the monumental symbolism, what did it mean? Many hoped that with a black man in the Oval Office, it might be the beginning of a new day for black America. But dreams and reality diverge. As early as the first months of Obama's campaign, people paying close attention saw that while he was concerned with the plight of the poor, his agenda did not include an effort to "rescue" black people specifically. This lack of salvation became painfully clear during the recession. Earlier this year, radio host Tavis Smiley gathered a group of black thinkers for a televised confab calling on Obama to craft legislation addressing black concerns, but it was longer on rhetoric than results. (See photos of the world watching Obama's inauguration.)
In general, people have had two mistaken expectations about Obama and black Americans. The first is that a President of any color could solve the long-standing problems of African Americans in just a couple of years. The second is that the kind of change that a black President would bring to black America would be revolutionary, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, Obama has offered more to black America than most people can see, because it isn't the kind of change they've been looking for. (See TIME's photoessay "From Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)
That it would have been political suicide for Obama to reign as a "black President" is the usual political analysis, but the substantive one is that the problems poor blacks face today are more abstract and difficult to solve than the stark injustice of Jim Crow. One problem is outdated beliefs about advancement. Few black street myths are more disabling than the observation that a man without a college degree used to be able to support a family on a low-skill manufacturing job but that in today's economy, uneducated black men are unqualified for meaningful employment. This bleak vision of ghetto black men's prospects requires a certain blindness. It's vanishingly rare for the typical cable-TV installer, mechanic, sound technician or air-conditioning specialist to be a white guy with a degree from Duke.
Yet the sense persists that to not go to college, in the traditional sense of four years of liberal-arts study, is a glum disability. Many of us assume this because we've been taught to think of vocational training as a kind of consolation prize, a lower track. But not so long ago, one did not shudder at the notion of a person choosing a career working with his hands. Today, one pathway to a satisfying and even middle-class career is community college. In that light, Obama's determination to invest billions of dollars in America's community colleges is exactly the black agenda we should be pursuing. (Who is best qualified to run a school system?)
Maybe such programs aren't hot news like Obama's beer summit about alleged racial profiling, but they matter. How many people have heard about Promise Neighborhoods? Obama's Department of Education worked overtime to get funding for 21 poor neighborhoods across the U.S. so they could try to replicate the efforts of social activist Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone. Canada has been seeking to eliminate poverty in 97 blocks of Harlem with a program that may include a combination of intensive charter schooling (starting with preschool), parental workshops and health initiatives. During his campaign, Obama vowed to expand this model nationwide, and he has delivered; funding will be increased as much as sixfold next year (to $60 million). It takes only a bit of imagination to see that this is black-positive as legislation goes, even if unaccompanied by stirring speeches full of words like crisis and expressions like at last. The case only gets stronger if you consider health care reform (an issue of special importance to blacks) and the increase in funding for historically black colleges and universities.
What used to be called the Struggle is still happening, but you have to know where to seek it. More often than not, the Struggle will not be in the headlines. Waiting for change in black America to once again be a matter of dramatic marches is like wondering why you can't find your favorite music on cassettes. Time passes. Reality changes. People move your cheese. Barack Obama has been a "blacker" President than the one Toni Morrison anointed as the first black one, Bill Clinton. After all, what's blacker — planting 21 rescue operations in depressed neighborhoods or playing the saxophone?
McWhorter's most recent book is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English
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