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After the celebration, the real work continues

by Professor Emily Drew, Guest Opinion
Saturday November 08, 2008
The Oregonian, OregonLive.com

This week's election marks a moment for pause and celebration. The election of Sen. Barack Obama into the presidency marks something that has been impossible up until this time for African Americans, and other racial minorities. Like many of my family and friends, I spent election night celebrating, and glued as much to the news coverage as I was glued to my renewed sense of hopefulness.

And now I am faced with a more sobering reality. Our country's race problem has not gone away. The amount of calls, emails and texts I received saying "we won" made me feel as anxious as they did joyful. After all, I'm not entirely convinced that we who work for racial justice have fully "won." In electing an African American man as the 44th president of the United States, we did not "win" racial, economic or social justice. What we have won is a small battle, an opportunity to address inequality in a new and significant way. Let us not waste this opportunity, as history does not afford these kinds of junctures very often.

We need to proceed with caution, as many are already touting Obama's election as a sign that we have "arrived" in terms of ending racism. Where we have arrived, as I see it, is at an opportunity to confront some of our deepest challenges as a nation, such as racism. The self-congratulating has begun, calling ourselves a "New America" and officially declaring the "death of racism." I'm not convinced that racial barriers have fallen, as The Oregonian's headline ("Obama rises, barrier falls," Nov. 5) suggests. If, for example, we return to another 40 years, or 200 years, of excluding black people from the presidency, will historians call this time one of "racial barriers falling" or one of an "exception to the rule"?

Or, if Obama's presidency does not lead to elimination of the many barriers that keep people of color from accessing housing, employment, and educational opportunity, then are we celebrating something that has not fully been won?

The race problem does not end simply by having people of color in prominent positions; the "very diverse" cabinet of our current president reminds us that simply "getting in" is not sufficient and will not result in social justice. Equity and justice only happen when the presence of historically excluded and marginalized voices translates into tangible gains for the most marginalized members of society. We need to resist our desire to turn celebration into complacency, to be lured into the intoxicating neoliberalism that supposes we are now a post-racial society.

This week's election is not fully historic yet. What will make this historic is if Obama's entrance into the White House means we can deal seriously with our unresolved history of racism, and its current manifestations. His election means there is a potential opening to deal with our country's race problem from the highest levels of power. But only if we demand it so, and only if we hold our leaders accountable to taking upon the mantle of racial justice as vigorously as they have taken up the "end of racism" fiction.

We don't get to take the next four years off. This election means we cannot be complacent about racial and economic injustice. It means we have to work harder than ever before. It means we at least have a chance for different results, but only if we work for them. Struggles for racial justice have always emanated from the grassroots, from communities. We cannot expect from our new president what we ourselves do not work for.

Emily Drew is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Willamette University in Salem.

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