Moving forward on race relations as Obama exits

"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963

On Monday, the country again celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the legacy of the great civil rights leader. On Friday, the time in office of the nation’s first black president ends as the nation again witnesses the peaceful transition of power in accordance with our Constitution.

In electing Illinois Sen. Barack Hussein Obama the 44th president of the United States in November 2008, the nation came its closest to achieving the ideal voiced by King in his Aug. 28, 1963, speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Our nation judged this young senator on a character they found appealing and reassuring in a time of great stress. Massive financial institutions stood on the brink of collapse, as did General Motors, while millions of families faced foreclosure. The deepening recession was rapidly expanding, threatening to become a second Great Depression.

Whatever one's views on political policy, the Obama administration has been one of good character. While there have been controversies, it has been essentially scandal-free.

As a family unit, the character of the Obamas was one in which the nation could take pride and emulate.

Yet King, if he were alive, might be disappointed that the willingness of Americans to trust this black president in such perilous times did not demonstrate a more fundamental and universal shift in race relations.

With that election, the country did not change, or had not changed, as much as many surmised. Obama recognized as much in his farewell address in Chicago last week.

“After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” he told the 20,000 people gathered for the emotion-filled, final major speech of his presidency.

Some have blamed the first black president for driving racial divisions deeper. This is not the case. People of color have carried their grievances out into the streets in recent years. That is a turn of events more about technology, and past problems becoming more public as a result, than it is about the resident of the White House.

The prevalence of video cameras on almost every mobile phone meant incidents of officers taking aggressive and sometimes fatal actions against black people, often with questionable justification, only confirmed what black Americans said they lived. Being a person of color increases your chances of being confronted by the police and the chances of those encounters going very wrong.

Obama, to his credit and in contradiction of his noted caution on many policy matters, did not shy from this discussion. In that, this black president was different.

In his farewell speech, he urged the nation to keep talking and, as important, listening and empathizing.

“Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us needs to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

That means, the president said, trying to understand “the middle-aged white guy who ... has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.”

It means, “Understanding that when minority groups voice discontent ... they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.”

The tenure of the first black president did not achieve King’s dream, but it advanced it.

In May 1963, speaking to supporters in Birmingham, Ala., who had faced thousands of arrests, King delivered a rallying message that remains true today.

“The thing that we are challenged to do,” King said, “Is to keep this movement moving.”

Indeed, we must.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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