January 20th, 2009
03:20 PM ET

Why we must talk about race now, more than ever before

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/01/20/lowery.jpg caption="Reverend Joseph Lowery."]

Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic

Just one day after Barack Obama's historic victory, the New York Times declared that his success at the polls was "sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease."

With ease? This statement contradicts the tightrope Obama had to walk throughout the election. If he didn’t overtly address race, people of color would have distrusted him and felt he didn’t have their best interests at heart. But had he aligned himself too closely with the race issue, he ran the risk of emphasizing his “otherness” and alienating white voters. There was nothing easy about the delicate balancing act Obama had to perform to win the election.

In the wake of President Obama’s inauguration, more people are starting to question why we still need to talk about race and diversity. After all, our president is black. Isn’t that sufficient proof that racism in America has met its match?

The reality is that race is not yet an issue we can afford to ignore.

1. There will always be “stand-outs” like Obama who carve a niche for themselves despite institutionalized discrimination.

For example, a black woman named Madame CJ Walker, the daughter of two former slaves, became the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States (black or white) by creating a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women. She accomplished this feat at a time when blacks were subjected to extreme poverty, segregation, violence, and oppression. Her success during the Jim Crow era did not indicate that discrimination against blacks was nonexistent during this time. Instead, she became successful despite the odds.

Obama, too, is an exception to well-entrenched racism, rather than a symbol of the end of it. Thousands of voters told pollsters outright that they would never vote for a black man. (How many other voters felt the same way but would not go on the record and verbalize it?) Obama won the presidency in spite of racism, not because of its absence.

2. Racial disparities still exist in nearly every aspect of American life.

David Thomas, Harvard Business School professor and author of Breaking Through:The Making of Minority Executives in Corporate America, recently told Human Resources Executive magazine that “although the glass ceiling is "no longer impenetrable, talent being equal, the probability of making it to the C-suite is still less if you are a person of color than if you are a white male."

Indeed, the Working Group on Extreme Inequality has confirmed that the racial economic divide between whites and blacks is a quantifiable reality:

• In 2006, black individuals made 54% less annually than their white counterparts.
• In the same year, black families made 58% less than whites.
• In 2004, the median household wealth for whites was $118,300 as compared to just $11,800 for black families.
• In 2006, 75.8% of whites owned a home; only 47.9% of blacks did,
• And when it comes to unemployment, in 2007 4.1% of whites were without work as compared to 8.3% of blacks.
• In 2006, 91% of white students graduated from high school, while just 81% of blacks did. And in college, the disparity is even greater: in 2004, 31% of whites graduated, against just 10% of blacks.

3. The civil right movement began just 50 years ago.

There are hundreds of years of oppression to undo, thousands of laws and unspoken hiring biases to uncover and bring into the light. Fifty years is just the beginning of a protracted struggle to level the playing field.

While no one can deny that progress is being made (pat yourselves on the back for that!), until people of all backgrounds are allowed the opportunity to make a decent living, to buy a home, to send children to college, to receive adequate health care, and to live as equals among all others, we must continue to challenge the powers-that-be which still block equal opportunity.

While it’s wonderful to breathe a sigh of relief as a new administration takes office – one that “gets it” – this is no time to let up.

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Jeff K

    I believe that we are at a unique juncture in time. We are faced with an opportunity to move past the ideology that has plagued this country in the past and truly take heart to the idea of change in this country. I hope that ALL people can truly look inside themselves and try to move past the old ideology that has divided us for years and make a personal decision to rise above and put an end to this chapter in American history. The stage has been set and now "change" is up to each of us.

    January 20, 2009 at 6:27 pm |
  2. Frann Altman in CA

    We need to talk about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion...anything that creates segregation and is excluding rather than including, we need to talk about.

    January 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  3. Sandra O'Malley in Abilene ks

    Racism is due to uneducated people. when i moved to ks 8 years from chicago il, i never heard such ignorant people. I was called a "spic" my first day of school. I had Never experienced racism in my life up until i moved here. People don't understand diffrent races. We need to break the cycle and educate others on different cultures, backrounds, and so on. That's what makes this country great. In some way or another we are ALL Immagrants, who live together.

    January 20, 2009 at 6:12 pm |
  4. Shirley Bodirnea

    The one thing that bother me about this election is Obama is always refered to as the 1st black candidate now president. But he is 1/2 black and 1/2 white so he is the first bi-racial president. This shouldn't be about black and white but the whole election has turned into that. It is a BLACK and WHITE president.

    January 20, 2009 at 6:06 pm |
  5. Barbara in Boston

    I agree. I am a white woman so I am not personally trammeled by the passive racism that permeates our society, but I see it everywhere. There are many people of color where I work, but African-Americans are mostly employed in entry-level positions. Only one of the senior management is not white, and he's an Asian-American. Most of the top management are white men. And I live in a liberal/progressive community. We have a long way to go.

    January 20, 2009 at 5:52 pm |
  6. Mike, Syracuse NY

    The two most telling statistics is the school dropout rate and illigitamate birth rate. Both education and a 2 parent home are proven to be huge drivers in economic success. In both areas, blacks significantly lag whites. Both are also NOT due to institutional discrimination, but as Bill Cosby has been pointing out for years, due to personal choice. The article states: "until people of all backgrounds are allowed the opportunity to make a decent living, to buy a home, to send children to college, to receive adequate health care, and to live as equals among all others, we must continue to challenge the powers-that-be which still block equal opportunity." WE ARE THERE TODAY. Stay in school, don't pump out kids out of wedlock, and the dream is within everyone's reach.

    January 20, 2009 at 5:41 pm |
  7. JC- Los Angeles

    Let's hope today's inauguration is the end of the line for party affiliations, racial segregation and devisive thinking and the start of a new America where people are judged by their character, ethical actions and honest accomplishments.

    For those willing to embrace today's multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-colored American tapestry, the possibilities are endless; for those separatists willing to embrace our past, the possibilities are limited.

    January 20, 2009 at 5:31 pm |
  8. AR

    For those who believe talk of race is over, I beg to differ with such ignorance of opinion. Ask those of us who managed to struggle through the likes of medical school, rigorous training, and a life calling that demands viewing people as equals before deciding a treatment plan that saves one from pain and suffering. Despite such commitment to the cause of humanity, I still cannot enter an elevator without having a mother shove her child to the side as far away from me as possible, while the child stares at me-a strange woman donning a veil, yet still exchanges a smile with me, and I shamefully shy away in fear that my smile in reciprocation could lead to a very uncomfortable ride. Thus, Obama indeed has taken a step closer, but we as a nation, still have a long way to go!

    January 20, 2009 at 4:58 pm |
  9. Lea Roy

    Not sure this is the right place but here goes. I am watching or should say we have sat spell bound for days here in rural Nova Scotia Canada since Obama was nominated and then elected, and watched in awe as history has surely come to pass not just for Americans but for all who believe that yes change can happen and be inspired to get up no matter where you are and do what you can no matter how small or big. Now to add about talking about race. Here is a side that is not talked about much. In my family things were whispered, or joked about for a couple of generations. When I was a child I didnt understand what was going on. I also heard racial slurs and yes even the n word said by members of my family. What I am about to tell you was more common that I knew. My family came to Canada by way of an ancestor who was a slave and his owner brought him to Nova Scotia and aloud him to live free and settle in the South Shore.On the other side of my family were also immigrants who married interracially. They could not get married in the church of their choice so they married in a small church that was in the village and married alot of our ancestors and such. As the years and generations went on the color of our skin lightened and eventually some including my family moved on and choose to pass themselves off a white. This was instilled in us as kids that when checking the box at school and for other activites that we were white. Alot of families did this for year to get the opportunities, jobs etc. And yes hatred is and was alive and well in Canada at the time. We did not know the difference untill a few of us search out family tree and discovered this fact. Now it all made sence to us the Aunt that was black, the whispers. Being of the hippie generation (yes I am an aged baby boomer) I wasvery active in civil rights for all. As I got older I also became and activist for gay and lesbian rights. Now I know who I am and proud to tell the world. With the new President of the United States yes more can now shed the shackles of history and be proud.Yes change is in the air and it smells good.

    January 20, 2009 at 4:53 pm |
  10. R. Simmons

    I was really let down from the moment when Rev. Lowery stated in his prayer, "make whites do what's right". Wrongs as well as rights have been commited by all races. All should do what's right. What bitterness.
    On the positive side, my prayers go out to President Obama and his administration to do what's right for our country. May God Bless America!

    January 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm |
  11. Rita Dinger

    God truely Blessed America today. Today we have the opportunity to continue to accept all peoples and most importantly to put in leadership positiions women and men of all persuasions and colors.

    January 20, 2009 at 4:42 pm |
  12. cheryl

    Sorry .... but it's now 3:30 where I live – I won't be watching anymore today – can't take anymore "redemption" – MLK Jr , etc. I was hoping that our new president was going to be one for ALL people – but after listening to CNN – especially Jessie Jackson – I'm beginning to wonder. The significance of the 1st black president is not lost on any of us – but he didn't win any office because of his race only ! I have such high hopes for this president and country .... I'm beginning to feel that the "joy " is fading with the constant reminder of his color and not only the past struggles of "his" people be the continuous struggles of "his" people.

    January 20, 2009 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Shirley Lawson

    Well said Carmen.
    Obama's election is indeed the proof that a lot has changed. But we still have a long way to go before we can declare racism is at an end. Wasn't it just last summer we were faced with the Gena 6? Not to mention the recent beating death of a man in NYC because he was HIspanic? I am proud as an African American to see the 1st African American president, but let's not use that as an excuse to forget how much more still needs to be done.

    January 20, 2009 at 4:29 pm |
  14. KIm

    Do you think those racial bias are driven more from older generations than younger moved on for unity ? If not,would Obama be President ? Those past lessons of struggle have taught new generations well and we'll fight for all nationalities to stand for democracy and equality,our Constitution and what our founding father's faught for those battles to mean.

    January 20, 2009 at 4:03 pm |
  15. Tim

    Anderson. I'm a 40 year old black professional Maryland resident. My wife and 2 year old son spent the day watching you and inaugural with my 75 year old parents. I wish more people in general had an open mind such as you and some of your peers. I think on both sides there needs to be mutual respect; understanding that our differences are what makes us all unique. We are not all the same, but we are all equal. Our strength is in our diversity.

    January 20, 2009 at 3:58 pm |
  16. Cecil Jones

    Race cannot be used as an excuse for failure anymore. Race cannot be used to exclude, divide or disqualify anyone from participation. If one stands outside the White House screaming in protest seeking justice then Obama as a real uniter must let them in. That lone voice must be heard and not ignored. Race cannot be used to silence the one representing the masses from equal access to power. Obama has no excuse and nothing to fear unless he too is guilty of discrimination. Just because Obama is Black it doesn't mean he can't get amnesia. One on the outside only seeks justice, but those on the inside must cry for mercy if they fail to make us one nation under God.

    January 20, 2009 at 3:56 pm |
  17. Leslie Bee

    People need to realize that President Obama's father might be a decendent from africans that were taken from kenya to be sold as slaves somewhere in America or Europe. The possibility of this is great

    January 20, 2009 at 3:37 pm |
  18. Cindy

    Obama's pick to be the pres does mean that we jumped a hurdle in race relations but it does not mean that all of our problems are over in that area! There is still racism running rampant in this country today and his swearing in to be the pres means nothing towards that.

    It does open that door so that we can try to talk and hopefully move on from racism eventually. But I do think it'll take a while to totally eradicate it unfortunately.


    January 20, 2009 at 3:32 pm |
  19. Jeff Powell

    Contralulations to all Americans for contributing to this historic day!

    As our previous commander in chief helicoptered off, I wonder if anyone pondered the possibility that Mr. Bush could have been the last Caucasian male to be elected to the presidency over the next couple decades. Time will tell.

    January 20, 2009 at 3:30 pm |