In the Shadow of a Dream

By Noël Gordon, University of Michigan

This Sunday, President Obama is scheduled to give remarks in anticipation of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Standing above him will be a 30-foot-tall granite statue of King, the inspiration for which came from an oft forgotten line in Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. The image is sure to be a powerful one. But it will also be a stark reminder of just how much the president has yet to do on behalf of the African-American community.

Race has loomed heavily over the Obama administration these past three years. The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the firing of USDA official Shirley Sherrod are just two incidents that immediately spring to mind whenever I begin thinking about this administration’s handling of race relations in America. Both situations were handled irresponsibly and haphazardly in my opinion.

Nevertheless, my biggest problem with the administration has almost nothing to do with its poor communication skills. Nor does it have anything to do with its unwillingness to take on Tea Party Republicans who unapologetically use racial dog whistling as if it’s going out of style. No, the main issue I have with the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with issue of race has everything to do with how it approaches problem-solving in the Black community.

As I understand it, the Obama administration believes that implementing race-neutral policies helps all racial minorities evenly. This sincerely held belief comes from the top-down, with Obama even admitting as much in a December 2009 interview when he argued that he, “can’t just pass laws that say I’m helping black folks. I’m the President of the entire (emphasis added) United States. What I can do is make sure that I’m passing laws that help all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable and most in need. That in turn is going to help lift up the African-American community.”

While I wholeheartedly disagree with the president on this issue, I could at least sympathize with him if he applied this logic consistently throughout presidency. But such has not been the case.

It will be bittersweet for me to watch the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell occur later this year when I know the unemployment rate among African-Americans will likely remain in the double digits. I know this because it has been incredibly difficult celebrating the Administration’s decision to halt the deportation of DREAM Act-eligible immigrant youth in this country when HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections continue to devastate many of the communities wherein I grew up.

As I look around and bear witness to all these wonderful progressive victories, I can’t help but think of an analogy once used by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson: Sure the tide is helping to save many of the people stranded out at sea. But let’s not forget that some people are drowning simply because they never had a boat to begin with. Put simply, let’s not forget that “helping all people” means helping black people, too. I know this seems counter-intuitive to some and politically risky to others. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the right thing to do. And to critics who say it simply can’t be done, look no further than New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative—a program that isn’t perfect by any means, but acknowledges two important truths about our society: The one-size-fits-all approach often doesn’t. And remedying racism isn’t by definition reverse discrimination.

I’m not the first African-American to raise these concerns. And like many of you, I will be tuning in Sunday to hear the president’s remarks. But unless President Obama acknowledges the uniquely harsh realities facing so many minorities in this country, Dr. King’s Dream for this nation will forever be just that: a dream.



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6 thoughts on “In the Shadow of a Dream

  1. A perfect example of African Americans wanting “equality” in the form of special treatment. The President is handling this just fine – he wants to help ALL people that are at the bottom of the barrel. This cross-section of the American population includes large numbers of Mexicans and whites as well. And THAT is something that is “politically risky” to admit. Rich white people don’t want to help poor white people any more than they want to help poor black people. And immigrants? Out of the question.

    What I’m saying is, poverty in America is not race-specific anymore. This is not the sixties. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you ought to get unique consideration. A lot of other groups need help too, and we can’t be looking at the issue of poverty in such a selective manner.

    Posted by What | August 25, 2011, 6:32 pm
  2. If, by your logic, the President has been “handling this (problem) just fine,” then shouldn’t we have seen some sort of improvement in the condition of Black America? Can you even name one policy proposal that President has implemented that has directly benefited African-Americans? You’re right. A lot of other groups do need help, too. But perhaps we should start addressing the problems in those communities specifically rather than imposing some general solution on them.

    Posted by Noel Gordon | August 25, 2011, 9:05 pm
  3. I do think affirmative action is somewhat prejudicial against whites but I also acknowledge that some Blacks, and other races are born into disadvantaged homes. I’m not sure exactly what the solution is but some sort of acknowledgement that yes, race has a lot to do with the opportunities you’re given is a must. I agree with Noël that Obama has done little in the social issues facing the US. I also disagree with What’s comment, “A perfect example of African Americans wanting “equality” in the form of special treatment.” After all, a handicapped person is entitled to ramps, elevators and handicapped parking which all can be “interpreted” as special treatment. I do believe minorities, especially struggling minorities should be compensated but perhaps in a different method than the ones implemented today. However, though I do agree with the vast amounts of scholarships given to minority students, I feel affirmative action is somewhat detrimental to those who work hard but are not disadvantaged. If the solution was so easy, then we wouldn’t have this problem, but again, all we can do is try different methods and see which one works.

    Posted by Chris Shu | August 25, 2011, 9:31 pm
  4. I agree with Chris’s criticism of WHAT’s comment. As exemplified by Mr. Gordon’s inclusion of Professor Dyson’s quote, he is not advocating any sort of “special treatment” towards African-Americans just a proposal that can be enacted to bring America towards Dr. King’s dream of equality for all. It all comes down to your definition of special treatment. Do handicapped people get special treatment when we build ramps so they can go upstairs? Do older Americans get special treatment, when they receive Medicare after working for decades and paying into the program so that they can have that comfort, stability, and security when they can no longer work off medical bills? Do blind people get special treatment when we spend the extra money to put signs in braille, so they can “see,” and are able to go about life similarly to the rest of us? Or do all these people just get help to put them on equal footing, so that they too have an equal opportunity to obtain the American dream? There is no clear answer to addressing problems of inequality and discrimination in America because our world is not black and white, but is it excusable for us to just sit back and do nothing?

    “America adopted a policy of special treatment for her millions of veterans…They could negotiate loans from banks to launch businesses. They could receive special points to place them ahead in competition for civil service jobs…There was no appreciable resentment of the preferential treatment being given to the special group.”
    – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    What really is special treatment?

    PS: Thanks to Irene, we’ll all have to wait a little longer to hear the President’s address.

    Posted by SilenceDogood (Curt W.) | August 26, 2011, 5:00 am
  5. The examples you gave of good things Obama has done for minorities are both problems directly caused by the government, and the solution was simply for the government to stop doing it. On the other hand, the problems you list that you wish Obama would also address are more systemic and the solutions are not so readily obvious. Is there legislation in the works or a specific government action that you advocate to solve those problems specifically in African-American communities? I can think of repealing the drug prohibition for starters, but I’m wondering your opinion on it.

    Posted by Amy | August 26, 2011, 7:36 pm
    • Amy, I would encourage you to look up legislation authored in recent years by members of the Congressional Black Caucus as well as the entire Caucus itself. You raise an interesting point about the examples I list in my piece. Of course, my list was never intended to be exhaustive. One recent piece of legislation you may want to look up (if it has been introduced) is the Eliminating Health Disparities Act. If signed into law, the bill would address many of the health concerns unique to minority communities (and, by extension, the African-American community). Government has indeed taken steps to remedy systemic problems in other communities (think Medicare/Medicare and the elderly). So I think it only fair to include African-Americans in that equation.

      Posted by Noel Gordon | August 27, 2011, 8:43 pm

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