Lessons From Black History: Obama's First Year Is 'Back to the Future'

As part of the Roosevelt Institute's weeklong "Lessons from Black History" series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog from Feb. 15-19, I was asked to reflect on what lessons from the past should be heeded to advance social justice in the future. Here's my take.

Obama's first year in office has been defined by very real concerns -- getting and keeping jobs, providing the health care we need, improving education for our kids, keeping our country safe and finding solutions around immigration. But these real concerns, coupled with a black president, have prompted prejudice -- pure and simple. Americans have vacillated between our need for government programs that work and our resistance to them. Richie Drake, a disabled father with children on Medicaid, told a National Public Radio reporter that he opposed Congressional health care reform because Obama was only looking out for "the minorities." On a recent plane trip, I listened to two men compare virtuous European immigrants of the mid-20th century to lazy and unpatriotic Latino immigrants. All the while, they denied -- no, they believed -- they had no racial bias. So what does Obama's first year in office tell us?

Ironically, race has emerged as an effective wedge, and has been made more effective by the weakly contested view that race no longer matters. A look at Black 19th and 20th Century struggles for full citizenship can help us understand why this was not a better year, and will help lead us toward what we can do now. Black history shows that a complex web of social, political and economic relationships impact the health of our democracy. Many factors fueled the Civil Rights Movement: Black social and political organizations, white patrons and college students, migration after the abolition of slavery, investment in infrastructure and other and New Deal-era social programs.

Today, despite superficial similarities to past hard times, before, that complex web has changed. We have different structural conditions. Our economic crisis recalls the Great Depression, but Obama, unlike Roosevelt, is not from a wealthy, ruling-elite family raising taxes on his own class. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us of Vietnam, but today's wars reflect our fear of terrorism at home, not a far-off ideological threat. Central American immigration recollects the turn-of-the-century immigration of the Irish and of European Jews. But turn-of-the-century immigrants, deemed racially inferior at the time, still held more rights and a higher status even if they were considered "illegal." In New York, the Irish could vote, even if they were in the country illegally.

Today black political and social structures are weaker than four decades ago. White patronage of black causes is shrinking, too. According to a May 2009 study by the Community Service Society, in 1998 a mere 3% of foundation grant dollars went to African Americans. In 2006, that dropped to 1.5%.

Obama is the canvas upon which we paint our hopes, or fears, or hate -- depending upon who we are and what day it is. We can't change that, but we can build and support institutions in communities of color, confront unconscious racism by calling it out, build alliances across race lines and produce policies that invest in people.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.