On the very day that the rest of America elected the first black president in the nation’s history, voters in Nebraska approved a referendum banning all government affirmative action programs in the state.
For many Americans, those two developments add up to one conclusion when it comes to the long and bitter struggle over civil rights: Problem solved. Everyone’s equal now. Let’s move on.
Or, as Ward Connerly, the black conservative activist from California who has led a national crusade against race-based affirmative action programs, put it: “We have overcome the scourge of race.”
Civil rights leaders across the country scarcely had time to savor Sen. Barack Obama‘s unprecedented victory before grappling with an ironic new predicament Wednesday: How to keep the nation’s focus on the continuing racial injustices they see when an African-American will be occupying the White House.
“Now that we’ve got a black person in the most powerful and most highly symbolic place, I do expect many white Americans will consider it one less reason for black Americans to whine,” said James Rucker, founder of Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group with more than 400,000 members. “The problem with that is, we still have housing discrimination, hate crimes, the overrepresentation of African-Americans in prison and inequities in education. One election doesn’t make all that go away.”
Obama’s election feels historically cleansing to Americans of all races who know that when the nation was founded more than 200 years ago, blacks were not even regarded as fully human. But even though the most overt forms of institutional discrimination, such as segregation and bans on interracial marriage, were purged from the nation’s lawbooks a generation ago, profound social and economic disparities still divide blacks from whites in America.
Bean is hopeful that Obama will elevate the importance of civil rights cases in the U.S. Justice Department. And the president-elect already has signaled an interest in expanding the definition of civil rights to encompass economic as well as racial disparities.
But just in case the new administration were to falter, Sharpton said he’s prepared to stage one of his signature civil rights protests outside the Obama White House.
“I don’t think that would happen, because Obama’s commitment to civil rights is basically there,” Sharpton said. “But if we had to protest, we would.”