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A Post Racial Era?

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“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”

When Dr. Martin Luther King wrote those stirring words in 1963, he was up to his neck in controversies, struggling to build a movement and gain support for the cause of civil rights. In August that same year, he would lead the now-legendary March on Washington.

When he addressed that crowd of nearly a quarter million men, women, and children from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. King laid out for all Americans a dream of reconciliation and renewal that would change the conversation about race relations forever. He helped America to understand that reconciliation isn’t about division but addition, and about the process of bringing us together as a nation.

But five years after that heroic event, the man who had done more than any other to bring healing to the wounds that separated blacks and whites, who had proposed a revolutionary vision of nonviolent protest, and who had broken the back of Jim Crow laws in the South, was taken from us at the height of his powers. The irony of his death—that a man so full of charity and compassion for others would be felled by an assassin’s bullet—wounded us all. Yet, his dream did not die. The dream grew larger, and Dr. King became larger than life—such things often happen with prophets. But it didn’t stop there, for we’re all his descendants –whether black or white, Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

One of the best commentaries on race to occur recently was a discussion entitled "Race and the New Congress" held at Williams College in Massachusetts just under two weeks after the election. On November 17, 2008, Leslie Stahl from 60 Minutes served as a moderator for a town hall style meeting that included nine members of the Black Congressional Caucus.

Before I discuss the important thoughts shared in the discussion, I need to share my biases. First of all, I have often found myself at odds with the Caucus - their policies, practices, and choices. Despite my philosophical differences with them as a group, they understand the politics and race nexus better than any group of people in the nation.

Secondly, I have long standing ties to Williams College (my undergraduate alma mater and the alma mater of both my daughters). My pro-Williams attitude led me to listen intently to the discussion and helped me find the nuggets of truth within the event.

Stahl began the discussion in a cheery, upbeat manner and quickly coaxed the panel to share very deep feelings concerning the presidential election and their task of working in the legislative branch of government during President-elect Obama’s first term. Several of them admitted that they secretly doubted that America was ready for a black president. Corporately, they agreed that Obama’s decisive victory marks the beginning of a new era in politics and race relations. The first question from the audience came from Governor Deval Patrick. He postulated that there is unfinished legislative business that still needs to be done around race.

Unfortunately, they unanimously declared that we have not entered into a “post racial” age. In fact, many of the problems the nation will attempt to solve in the next few years have racial implications. This does not mean that the nation has not made progress, but rather we will have to work through some tough issues to achieve a greater union.

For example, the panel pointed out that America has the highest percentage of imprisoned citizens in the developed world. Many of those prisoners are black and Hispanics. Next, the panel pointed out that the problem of illegal immigration has the potential to raise the specter of strained relations between black and white, Hispanic and black, and Asians vs. other groups.

Black and Hispanic unemployment levels are much higher than those of most Americans. Solutions to the healthcare dilemma that we face will be impacted the staggering disparity in the health based on race. Consider these facts: Blacks face twice the number of infant mortalities, 10 times the frequency of contracting HIV/AIDS, needing more hospitalization and requiring a greater number of amputations than their white counterparts.

The panel went as far as to allude to the fact that national solutions to our energy problems will also have racial and ethnic ramifications. I have discovered that soaring energy costs will affect the last and the least in the nation. People at the poverty line spend as much as 50% of their income on energy costs (including transportation). The race-based achievement gap in education, affirmative action, and systemic issues were also addressed by questions from the audience.

The tone of this discussion was very positive. The Caucus will encourage our next president to be a centrist that leads from the center. In this results-seeking, political environment, conservative Christians have the greatest potential of building bridges and creating new coalitions. Let’s all believe that the faith community will shed its image of contention, becoming the nation’s newest cultural “super glue.”

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