Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama can change America

As we to prepare to witness the historical inauguration of Barack Obama as the first Black person to become President of the United States, I feel good about it. I wish him well. I do not wish him well because I agree with his policies; I hope he is not successful in implementing some of the changes he wishes for our county. On some issues, I think we should be changing in the opposite direction of the direction Obama wants to take us. On other issues, I agree with Obama and hope he follows through on his campaign promises. In general, it is not his policies that have given me high hopes for Obama. I am not hoping he can change government policy but rather I am hopeful that he can change society.

America is still a society where most White people have it pretty good and most Black people do not. You do not have to tell me that there are successful African Americans and poor White people; of course there are. But, on average the typical Black person has it much worse in this country than the average White person.

Some will point out that any remnant of discrimination has been eliminated and opportunity, even preferential treatment, has been provided to Black Americans. For the most part I agree, and yet the divide between the races is undeniable.

If you are born white, you can have reasonable expectations of growing up to be successful. Even if you are born to parents of modest means, you probably know someone who has achieved success or someone in your family may have achieved success. If you are white it is reasonable to have high expectations. The chances are pretty good that the typical White child will grow up to be productive, and middle class and prestige and wealth are within grasp for those with exceptional abilities and those who apply themselves.

What can the black child realistically look forward to? Many find a reality in this: If you are a black girl you will be pregnant by the time you are sixteen and raise a child alone as a single mother, financially struggling your entire life. If you are a black boy it is worse. You will start getting into trouble with the law by the time you are a young teenager. You will drop out of school and you will end up spending part of your life in prison. You may be killed before you reach thirty. No one has to tell me it doesn’t have to be this way; I know it doesn’t, but the picture I have painted is the likely reality. If life turns out better, then you have beaten the odds.

Why is it like this? I suspect that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Great Society are all responsible for the state of the Black community. We have witnessed the destruction of the family in the Black community; the family unit is the building block of society. And poverty can be a simple math equation. For example, a mother earning $20,000 a year with one child is living in poverty. However, a family with a father earning $30,000 and a mother earning $20,000 and raising one child are doing OK. Poverty is much more than a math equation though. The absence of the father in the home is more than the absence of that income. Young men need a role model and a strong disciplinarian to keep them from running wild. Young women need a stable male figure, representing strength and fortitude and demonstrating love.

Poverty is hopelessness. Poverty is a different set of values. Poverty is a state of mind. If poverty is not to be devastating, people need the support system of the family structure. Poverty and despair and immediate gratification and low expectations and self-destructive behavior have become part of the fabric of Black society.

I think that whatever success Obama may have as President, his greatest success may be that he can change Black society. I can only imagine the pride that many Blacks must be feeling as they see a Black man achieve the ultimate success in becoming the most influential and powerful person in the world. Certainly we have had other Black role models recently. The Bush administration featured Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, yet I suspect that having a Black man at the very top of the ladder can have an impact that other Blacks in lesser positions cannot have.

Due to the historical structure of society, politics and even the entertainment industry, Blacks have had few admirable role models in the publicized realm. In modern times, the Black adults that many Black kids look up to are rappers and athletes. Many of the athletes have the persona of thugs and pimps and the rappers revel in that image. I watched the movie Ray Charles the other night. I love the music of Ray Charles and really enjoyed the movie, yet Ray Charles was not an admirable person. He was a drug addict who was openly unfaithful to his wife. If you are a Black parent, is this the kind of role model you want for your kid? I know one could also say that there are plenty of Whites who would make poor role models, but it seems poor role models are abundant in the black community and people to admire are few and far between.

It seem like even the successful blacks are often crooks and thugs or tainted by scandal or associations. Here in Tennessee we had an attractive Black candidate run for Senate a few years ago named Harold Ford, Jr. There was never any serious allegation about defects in his character, yet he comes from a powerful political Black family out of Memphis that is deeply tainted by scandal and corruption. His uncle, John Ford, was a sharp-dressing, handsome, arrogant, slick politician who had numerous run-ins with the law and who had a wife but also openly had a mistress. He openly maintained two households. He was a state senator for many years and is now in prison for corruption. From Adam Clayton Powell down through the present, it seems that there is almost an expectation that Blacks who achieve political success are corrupt.

Also, many of the civil rights leaders and religious leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seem more like demigods and shakedown artist rather than principled leaders. Certainly there are many, many good people pastoring Black churches across America and other Black leaders of stature, but the high profile Black leaders look like con artist.

My hope for America is that Blacks will aspire to look and act like Barack Obama and not the pimp on the corner, or the drug dealer, or the rapper, or the thug athlete. I hope that the image of the Obama household where a family consisting of two successful parents and two little girls living in a normal, loving, and supportive environment sinks into the psyche of every Black kid across America. I hope that Blacks see that they can achieve anything they put their mind to. I hope they learn to value education. I hope that speaking normal English and being responsible and working hard and studying and having aspirations is no longer considered “acting white.”

I hope there is never a hint of scandal on Obama. I was concerned about some of his Chicago relationships but I hope they were casual and that nothing more comes out to tie Obama to the corruptions of some of his past associates. If Obama has a girl friend on the side, I hope we never learn about it. I hope Obama is never caught taking money under the table. I hope he never shakes down contributors or is caught helping a corrupt crony get a contract or having a cheap affair with an intern.

I hope that Obama does not try to help the Black community by extending the dependency of the welfare state. That is the last thing the Black community needs. They do not need more dependency; they need self-sufficiency. Welfare reform was a step in the right direction and then it was abandoned and we backslid. For the last few years, for the most part, the problems of the Black community have been ignored. There are ways to expand opportunity without fostering dependency. The best thing Obama can do for the Black community is be a role model and use the bully pulpit to inspire Blacks to have greater aspirations and change the way they think. If Black kids want to grow up and be like Obama, that may be Obama’s most lasting legacy.

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  1. A very thought provoking post. :)

  2. Well written Rod, especially from the particular perspective of "Southern right-leaning pragmatist".

    I've been fortunate enough to live with "integration" as in attending a high school that was better than 50% black. That didn't mean our neighborhood was fully integrated, only that several neighborhoods fed this particular school. This was in the early '60's as the civil rights movement was coming to the forefront. Oh, and this was in Portland, Oregon.

    I then went to a "lily-white" University, where we had "token" blacks, a pair of light-skinned twins who have gone on to exceptional careers in public service. By my junior year, our student body of 1200 had 12 blacks, enough to form the Black Student Union.

    This was during the really tough times, really serious racial difficulties, including the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. I remember spending the entire night talking with members of the BSU, helping to work through the anger, and diffuse the urge to express that anger violently against the school or town.

    Three years in the USMC, gave me still another perspective.

    Over the years, I've watched affirmative action, welfare reform, the rise of less than ideal role models, and like you, I pray that today's youth... of all colors and heritage, will adapt the ways of Barak Obama.

    He's not perfect. He made mistakes as a young teen. He didn't really get it together until almost time to go to college. But... he did get it together. That's what's most important.

    You can change, no matter if you're young, or even older like us.

    First though, instead of thinking about what Obama will "give to us", we need to figure out what we will "give to others", as giving first always begets more in return.

  3. Hmm, very interesting take on the state of society! I really admire you for that, discussing the problems of our society, notably, our black community without cheap shots; great stuff!

  4. This is a fantastic post and very thought-provoking.
    I, too, wish Obama and our country well.