Washington Wizards' Gilbert Arenas. AP Photo.
November 4, 2008 marked a truly historic night, as Sen. Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States of America, becoming the first African American to be elected to the nation's highest office. That this night was historic and will never be forgotten by anyone is an understatement that goes without question; this fact is about the only thing surrounding President Obama that is not up for hot debate, but just about everything else germane to his presidency is, however. While many believe the President is doing as good a job as he possibly can, despite being severely hamstrung by the negligence of the previous administration, many others either think he's not tackling issues fast enough or are fearful that President Obama's policies attack the capitalistic system from which they've benefited their entire lives, whether the core principles of such a system are morally wrong or not. Still others believe the President is doing a decent job but has gotten in his own way because of the poor decisions some holding key positions in his administration have made. Opinions of Obama's leadership are as vast as the colors of a rainbow, and consequently, voters' grades on his first year in office range anywhere from A to F, depending on who is asked and where when they are asked. In this regard, this president is not different from any other in United States history, as the American public, comprised of individuals of every race and creed, has always had differing opinions about the quality of a president's leadership.
What makes President Obama different than any other man having ever held that office, besides the outwardly obvious difference in skin pigmentation, is that upon the shoulders of this president rest the lives of generations of African Americans, ostracized, demonized, and disenfranchised, who have seen more bad days than good but whose hopes in their own country have been renewed because one of their own has finally broken the ultimate glass ceiling. Never in the history of this nation has a singular event evoked so much emotion from a group of people, with joyous tears streaming down the faces of everyone from civil rights stalwart Jesse Jackson, to media icon Oprah Winfrey, to exuberant black college students, many of whom were voting for the very first time. The next day, and for weeks after, all the way through Inauguration Day, numerous black people of high and low stature proclaimed that the dawn of the Obama presidency marked the realization of the dream Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently and passionately articulated back in August of 1963. That assertion could be up for an even hotter debate than whether the public option in health care is good for America.
The quintessential questions that must be asked and that have gone unanswered for the nearly 47 years since Dr. King delivered his groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech are these: One, what constitutes the full, unquestioned realization of Dr. King's dream? Two, is there a singular event or a series of occurrences that must take place for the dream to become a reality, and if so, what are they? Again, the answers to these questions vary depending on the person asked and the sum total of the life experiences informing his/her perspective. However one chooses to answer, one thing is crystal clear; events involving key players in Black America over the past year since the election of President Obama have taught us that the dream has NOT yet become a reality, not by a long shot.
In the first year of the Obama presidency, events involving notable Black Americans, various long-standing injustices against blacks still persisting today, and the poor examples many blacks, especially black men, set for America's youth were strong indicators that this country has a long way to go to transition into the post-racial society that many firmly believe was birthed on Election Night 2008. In 2009, T.I., a highly acclaimed and largely popular rapper, went to jail on gun possessions charges, only for another, even more popular rapper, Lil Wayne, to be convicted on similar charges late in the year. While the former went on a tour of redemption to right many of his wrongs before heading off to jail in May of 2009, the latter found himself in more trouble only six days following his conviction, as he was detained (but not charged) for marijuana possession.
Washington Wizards NBA star Gilbert Arenas, heretofore a shining example of strong work ethic leading to huge professional success, has just been leveled with gun possession charges of his own, days after being suspended indefinitely by Commissioner David Stern following behavior indicative of one failing to either acknowledge and show remorse for wrongdoing or understand the gravity of the charges he is about to face. One would think he would have learned from the mistakes of either the aforementioned rappers, his NBA colleagues who have faced lengthy suspensions in the past, or himself, as this is not the first time he has had legal troubles with weapons. He has not learned, however, and he will have a long time to think about it, either with jail time or a lengthy league suspension with the loss of millions of dollars.
2009 certainly was not a banner year for black athletes, as Arenas was joined in infamy by NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley, who was arrested for DUI and had to take a leave of absence from his TNT commentator job, and top-ranked professional golfer and billion-dollar athlete Tiger Woods, whose multiple alleged affairs have led to a pending divorce and the loss of numerous big-name sponsors. Although Tiger has deliberately distanced himself from Black America in the past, everyone around the world recognizes him as a black man, and thus his "transgressions" are yet another black eye to black men in America.
In addition to the mishaps of black athletes and entertainers, numerous other events have taken place illustrating that, in this supposedly post-racial society, the more things change, the more they stay the same. One, we have learned, from well-known cases involving distinguished professor Henry Louis Gates and schoolteacher and aspiring medical school student Heather Ellis, that race can still polarize an entire nation, evoking shockingly dissimilar viewpoints on each end of the racial spectrum regarding a particular issue. Two, we have also learned that many whites with even the best intentions still express viewpoints off the record that reinforce centuries-old black stereotypes. In addition to the much-discussed comments by Nevada senator Harry Reid in 2008 about President Obama being a viable black presidential candidate because of his light skin and lack of a "Negro dialect," it was also recently reported that former President Bill Clinton, in a conversation with the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy to solicit his support for Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, said about then Senator Obama, "A Few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee." While it must be said that quotes can and have been taken out of context over the years, it must also be asked that if such comments could be made both by one who so strongly encouraged President Obama to run in the first place and by another widely regarded as the first black President because of his sensitivity toward underrepresented minorities during his presidency, then what must the rest of the country really be thinking?
Three, we have observed that policies instituted in decades past to help minorities secure professional opportunities from which their race previously had shut them out are still largely ineffective in changing the viewpoints of those holding the opportunities. Many are familiar with the efforts of Ward Connerly to overturn affirmative action, the very system that helped him, in part, ascend to where he is today, in states like Michigan and California, but many may not be familiar with the present futility of the NFL's Rooney Rule, a policy instituted by the league in 2003 requiring teams to interview minorities for all coaching vacancies and front-office positions. Black head coaches, past and present, such as former New York Jets' and Kansas City Chiefs' Herm Edwards, former Minnesota Vikings' and Arizona Cardinals' Dennis Green, former Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy, current Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raheem Morris, Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis, and Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, have surely benefited from this policy, as none of them, although highly qualified, might have ever gotten a shot for even an interview without this league mandate. Some recent events, however, have brought into question the Rooney Rule's current effectiveness. It is widely believed that the Seattle Seahawks skirted this rule by offering the obligatory "minority interview" to Vikings' defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier Saturday, January 9, 2010, even though reports surfaced the day before that plans were all but finalized to hire former USC Trojan head man, Pete Carroll. Seattle would have been levied a $200,000 fine by the league had they not interviewed a minority candidate and Frazier fulfilled that requirement for them. Some may recall that the Detroit Lions were indeed hit with that fine in 2003, shortly after the rule's inception, when they were turned down by five minority candidates, including Dennis Green and Sherm Lewis, for interviews, knowing that Steve Mariucci had long been tabbed for the job, thus rendering any minority interview a mere formality.
So, with all the trouble many prominent black men have gotten in over the past year, and with four major news stories involving blacks that have set race relations back decades, one cannot consciously assert that Dr. King's dream of equality for all people has been realized. While minorities have earned opportunities they have never come close to obtaining before, and while more blacks than ever are finding their piece of the American dream, we still, in 2010, see the perception of blacks has changed very little in the minds of many, and the behavior of many prominent blacks who have found themselves in legal and moral trouble in the past year hasn't helped to change that perception one iota. The notion that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States somehow ushered in a post-racial era in America is a fallacy of the highest order. No, equality for all people does not mean that everyone will conduct themselves with strong moral character at all times, and yes, it is very true that some people will never respect those of other races, regardless of what happens from a policy standpoint, but as long as blatant injustices against upstanding blacks continue to occur on a regular basis, and as long as blacks with great fortune, fame, and influence continue to show gross negligence with their own affairs, thereby feeding into the perception of inferiority and negatively influencing young and impressionable black children, there is still much work to do.
On this day, Friday, January 15, 2010, the day of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, and over the next several days, as we celebrate his life and legacy, we owe it to him to reflect over our lives and we, both individually and collectively, need to think about what role we can play to ensure full realization of Dr. King's dream, because as he understood, and as we all must similarly realize, if the pearly gates of freedom and prosperity are open to only a chosen few and not all people, both in this generation and the next, then none of us are either free or prosperous. Such is a concept Jesus preached constantly and that King Hezekiah of the Old Testament failed to understand, but one that we have the golden opportunity to finally take to heart.
Let us not let the great accomplishments of one man be the tenuous laurels upon which we rest because without support and vigilant activism for this President, for every person aspiring to be like him, and for people all over the world still desperately clamoring for opportunities to live the lives God has called them to live, it is a foundation that will soon crumble. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is still alive, but it has definitely not yet come to pass, so let's keep fighting!
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