Today, Barack Obama was ceremonially sworn in for his second term as President of the United States. This is especially significant since it is occurred on the same day that we as a nation celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–arguably the greatest civil rights leader in history. Some have argued that the Obama presidency is proof that Dr. King’s dream of racial equality has come to pass. Others have pointed out that the amount of disrespect being shown to our President is proof of how much racism still exists within our society. Indeed, the almost foolproof, gerrymandering-guaranteed deadlock within Congress ensures that President Obama will have greater difficulty making a difference than just about any president in recent history–especially considering the polarized nature of our current political atmosphere.
Like many people, I missed going to DC for either of President Obama’s inaugurations. This year I felt especially torn when I found out how many friends and acquaintances of mine would be there. However, I knew that my budget was extra tight. Sure I will be doing a lot of traveling on behalf of Ministerial Life, but realistically, I needed time to actually bring in the money to fund it. I tried to cheer myself up by reminding myself that I do not like cold weather and that I would likely have a better view of the day’s events from my television screen in my apartment. Nonetheless, there is just something special about actually being there to witness the first African American president’s inaugurations in person. There’s a big difference between being able to tell my unborn children that “I was there” instead of “I watched it on TV.” A part of me is still accepting that my story will be the latter instead of the former, but at least I will still be able to say “I remember when that happened.”
This past weekend, I was slightly lamenting the fact that I would also miss President Obama’s second inauguration when I went to a nearby bookstore to conduct an alumni interview of a prospective student for my alma mater. It’s one of the few things I do to give back. I figured people generally don’t expect a 6’2″ black man with long locs to be a Yale alum so it’s often exciting to go against the typical stereotype Ivy Leaguers being rich older Caucasian men. Ironically, I sort of thought that the only people who would notice my lack of adherence to the stereotype would be the prospective students I interviewed. So far, they have been pretty openminded and seemingly colorblind though they have also been all Caucasian. It never occurred to me what these interviews look like to people outside of the exchange until an older Caucasian woman randomly came up to me mid-interview to express her opinion. I was right in the middle of talking to the student about Yale’s residential college system when she appeared and said to me:
“I just wanted to tell you how much seeing you helping him like this makes my day. I joined the NAACP over 30 years ago and it’s good to see that something like this is possible now. It really makes my life’s work worthwhile.”
I responded with an awkward “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” she replied emphatically before walking away.
After saying a few things to alleviate the awkwardness being felt by my interviewee (who was already pretty stressed about being interviewed for college), I had the chance to reflect on the woman’s words. In a lot of ways, the existence of me and people like me is proof of how far our society has come. Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others died so that I could have these opportunities. At the same time, the fact that it is still unusual to see an African American man talking to a Caucasian high school student about higher education still shows just how much work we have ahead of us.
President Obama’s second inauguration is a major milestone for racial equality in this nation. If you followed the journey to the election in November, you’ll remember that there were several points when it seemed that a second win would be unlikely. People were extra harsh on Obama’s performance at the first debate and were pretty quick to discredit all of his accomplishments because of his inability to navigate through the Republican-induced, gerrymandering-protected deadlock in Congress. It didn’t help that religious leaders like Franklin Graham who had once viewed Mormonism as a cult were now backtracking because they wanted to support Mitt Romney and still try to make it appear that Barack Obama was not a Christian. He overcame those obstacles, but the mere existence of these obstacles shows just how much work needs to be done before Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream can become our reality.
In the end, my caution for Americans–especially African Americans–is that we do not take a few major milestones as proof that all is well with our society. We can’t view President Barack Obama’s second inauguration or the existence of African American Ivy League alumni like my friends and me as proof that our nation has reached a level or racial equality. We can acknowledge the progress, but we still have to acknowledge that racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of systemic inequality exist and need to be confronted. Only then will Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream be able to fully come to pass.