These days I wince whenever I hear someone of any ethnicity claim that we are now living in a “post-racial America.” The election of Mr. Obama, an African-American, to the highest office in the land is without question a great achievement, and a milestone that demonstrates how far we’ve come as a nation. But to conclude that the 400-year struggle for racial equality in America is therefore a closed chapter that we can put behind us is wishful thinking. Such a statement ignores the ongoing battle for human dignity and equality that continues to rage in our nations airwaves, movies, and of course in the streets and work places.
Exhibit A. Witness this recent piece of colossal ignorance and insensitivity by Mr. Pat Buchanan, MSNBC political commentator and frequent presidential candidate:
“White men were 100% of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100% of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100% of the people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, probably close to 100% of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks.”
Huh? You can look out of your window in D.C., Pat, and see the White House and Capitol Building. They weren’t built by Teamsters, but by African slave labor. You can sit at a railroad crossing, and while tapping the steering wheel with impatience, reflect that much of the railroad that crisscrosses this vast nation was built by Chinese immigrants. Where would America be today if slave labor had not made her cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco competitive on the world market for 250 years? Where would our agriculture be today without immigrant labor? Just consult the children’s section of your local public library, and it will tell you that free blacks and even slaves fought in the Revolution and War of 1812. Over 200,000 fought in the Civil War, on both sides. The Pentagon will show you records of those 700,000 who fought in WWII when civil rights for African-Americans were still a dream– not to mention the Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese and other non-Whites.
Essentially, what Mr. Buchanan is saying is exactly what many of the Founding Fathers believed: blacks and other ethnic groups can do the hard work but the fruits of liberty and democracy should be enjoyed by whites only. Our Constitution, after all, considered slaves or “other such persons” to be only 3/5 of a white person. The hard work of “other such persons,” enslaved, overworked, underpaid, and exploited, are not mentioned much in the history books because our history has been written largely by white Europeans.
Exhibit B: On July 16 Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., renown author, lecturer, and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Studies at Harvard, was arrested for trying to break into his own home in an affluent Cambridge neighborhood. Gates, who ironically had just returned from filming a documentary on racial profiling, was having difficulty opening his front door, when a passerby called police claiming that “two black males” were breaking and entering. Apparently, Gates was so irate at being profiled that police arrested him for disorderly conduct. While it is never wise to antagonize police by angry outbursts, one can sympathize with the scholar’s outrage at being arrested in his own home. Would he have been hassled if he had been white? According to another black Harvard colleague, Cambridge police have a history of racial profiling. Obviously, the arresting officers do not watch much PBS, or they would have recognized the celebrated documentarian. I’ll be looking forward to Dr. Gates’ next documentary. “It’s one thing to write about racial profiling,” he said after the incident, “but another to experience it.”
That we now have an African-American president is a wonderful achievement for this nation. Let us celebrate. But such a victory should not cause us to take our vigilant foot off the pedal for equality until each American is “judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”