Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 1.22.09

Free at Last?
Obama takes us one step closer to future hope
by Derrick Bell

At this point, every aspect of Barack Obama’s election and inauguration has been covered like a heavy rain on a parched landscape. His taking office as the first black president is deemed a racial breakthrough. And it is a unique moment, one even most civil rights advocates thought would not occur in their lifetimes. But the question that history, even fairly recent history, requires that we ask: Is Obama’s elevation to the White House more than just another unique moment when the fervent hopes of blacks coincide with the needs of whites and other nonwhites?

In our celebrations, we should not confuse progress with fortuity as we have while celebrating so many earlier unique moments that appeared to signal significant racial advances. Obama is enormously talented, ran a great campaign and successfully conveyed that he could be the change the country wants and needs. An important component of his victory, though, is that the country is domestically in the worse shape since the Great Depression and in international terms, as bad as it has ever been. In addition, the nation’s leadership over the last eight years has simply been dreadful. Obama came along at just the right time.

A similar situation existed when Brown v. Board was decided in 1954. Again, civil rights lawyers had worked diligently for 20 years to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation, but they made little headway until the early 1950s when it became clear to national policy makers that the nation had to improve its international and domestic racial image against communism that appeared a threat both at home and abroad. The court’s decision, urged by the Justice Department, was intended to improve our image abroad where we were competing with communist nations for the hearts and minds of peoples of color emerging from long years of colonial domination. And it served as reassurance to blacks at home still living under segregation that our subordination, while long ignored, had not been forgotten.

But when the force of fortuity gave way to the realities of racial subordination and exploitation, opposition to meaningful racial reform was resisted loudly in the South and more quietly but no less effectively in other parts of the country. Surely, much has been done, but it is hard to deny that Dr. King’s cry, “Free at last,” remains a future hope, not a present reality. 

The comparison of 1954 and the years that followed with the Obama election are not exact, but the similarities are certainly there. It remains to be seen whether the old resistances to change, whether racial or economic, can be diluted by an Obama whose leadership of the nation must prove as effective as that of the campaign. But it behooves those who want his administration to succeed to contribute as much effort and support to President Obama as they did to get him into what is clearly the most challenging positions any president has ever faced. 

Derrick Bell was the dean of the UO Law School from 1980 to 1985 and is currently a visiting professor at New York University Law School . He came here from Harvard Law School where he was the first black tenured law professor and a teacher to President Barack Obama. As a young lawyer, he worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the late 1950s and on the legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He was assigned to Mississippi in the midst of the civil rights movement.