Longing to Lose the Skepticism: Race Relations and Educational Equity in the Obama Era

Article excerpt

When I was a child, African American teachers in my de facto segregated schools in the Deep South encouraged students to believe that they could become anything that they wanted. "Work hard and just believe that you can do it," they would say to motivate us to do well academically. Education was the rational means to gaining access to professions beyond those of barber, teacher, preacher, and undertaker - the main routes to the middle class in the black community for my parents' generation. I took this edict seriously and worked hard, sometimes the only African American in a cohort in the elite Ivy League institutions that I navigated in the late 1980s and 1990s. Ironically, the lessons learned both inside and outside the classroom instilled in me a racial consciousness and knowledge of US and global racial history that rendered me a skeptic, a believer that while African Americans might earn membership in myriad professions - even as managers in corporations or government officials - a glass ceiling existed. Exposure to structural racism (and sexism, too), discrimination, and prejudice predisposed me to believe, consequently, that no African American would ever become president of the United States - not in my lifetime, at least.

I was not alone. Racial skepticism such as this emerged in various spheres of my life. Even the young people whom I interviewed about their perceptions of life chances and mobility for a study in the late 1990s believed this. Then a nineteenyear-old African American female and recent high school graduate living in Yonkers, New York, "Loresha Lincoln" (I use pseudonyms throughout to protect the privacy and confidentiality of students and their schools), declared emphatically that there would never be a black president in her lifetime (see Carter, 2005). Prominent African Americans and scholars believed it, too. The widely respected historian of American life and author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American-Americans John Hope Franklin - having grown up in the twentieth century under some of the nation's harshest racial conditions - doubted that the election of a black president was ever possible (youtube.com, 2008).

On November 4, 2008, our beliefs crumbled. The first person of African descent, Barack Hussein Obama, was elected the president of the United States of America. And on January 20, 2009, I, along with nearly two million other world citizens, stood mesmerized outside in wintry, below-freezing weather. For more than seven hours at the National Mall in Washington, DC, I witnessed an event that my deceased sharecropper grandparents would not have imagined possible. How did we not see it coming - this rise of an African American to the most powerful position in the world? Neither the media nor research had prepared many of us with any convincing arguments that it could happen prior to Mr. Obama's entry into the race. Yet, like the ice that melts as winter evolves into spring, my skepticism about race and presidential politics slowly dissipated, especially after the Iowa caucuses.

Symbolically, the Obama presidency is laden with profound meaning in US society - a nation ravaged by the inhumanity of its past treatment of African slaves and indigenous and colonized peoples and their descendants. In this moment, I delight at the possibility of the social and psychological benefits that President Obama's representation of excellence and leadership might have on black and brown schoolchildren, as well as their nonblack and nonbrown peers, as they are exposed daily to media images and information about him and his work. I also celebrate and support President Obama's mission to lead our country out of its current moral and economic morass.

Still, some skepticism about race relations in the United States endures. I feel the need to brace myself for the possibility that many Americans, even well-intentioned ones, will believe that the nation's work on racial matters is complete and will promote the idea that ours is a colorblind and racially healed society. …