Rev. Al Sharpton's Weekly Blog

Obama and the Messiah complexity

Jan 22, 2010

On Monday the United States celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King with a national holiday. It cast my mind back to 1963, when he wrote the book Why We Can’t Wait, in response to those who said it was “too early” to make America equal for all, regardless of race. On Wednesday the US marked another anniversary – of the inauguration of the first African American president.

Barack Obama’s election was seen by many as the dawn of the “post-racial” age, where we no longer needed to talk about equality. So if it was too soon when King was writing, and it’s too late now, tell me: when will it be time?

In reality, the racial age will not be over until the law guarantees all citizens equal opportunity and protection. And we must ultimately judge this not from the White House down but from ordinary houses up.

Obama’s anniversary celebrations this week were marred by the crucial loss of a Democrat seat in the Senate – and, shockingly, it was in Massachusetts, which has traditionally had a huge democratic majority.

From his high a year ago, Obama has lost support among Republicans who hate his healthcare reforms, and also among Democrats, some of whom believe his reforms didn’t go far enough, and many of whom oppose his escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But I think he’s done very well. Yes, some of the euphoria has gone, but people forget what he inherited: a nation engaged in two wars and on the brink of financial collapse.

Without doubt, some of the criticism directed against Obama has been racially motivated. And some say he shouldn’t have got involved, for instance, when his friend, Professor Henry Louis Gates, was arrested in his own home. Obama said the police department had acted “stupidly”; but I don’t think it was a mistake to say that, despite the backlash against his intervention.

Four years ago, Senator Obama spoke in Selma, Alabama, at the annual commemoration of the 1965 civil rights marches which took place there. He talked of a Moses generation of leaders (people like Dr King and Jesse Jackson) and a Joshua generation of younger leaders. For this younger group, the issues were not about seats on the bus, or the denial of voting rights; they were about racial profiling by the police and other state agencies. We didn’t have Jim Crow, the segregation laws. Instead we had Master James Crow Esq: the same thing, but done in a more sophisticated way.

So it was natural for Obama to treat the Prof Gates case like this; he was reacting according to what he knew. He later retracted the “stupid” comment. But at the time he’d also said: “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.” He never went back on this. And I think he did the right thing.

In some respects Obama faces a greater challenge now than before he was elected. Many Americans never really expected him to win the presidency, but it seems they all expected him to change their lives and the world within a year.

We need to remember that he ran for president, not for Messiah. The defeat in Massachusetts is a reminder that Obama already had a vociferous opposition; and if the majority of African Americans, along with the wider Democratic family, feel that we can somehow take our foot of the gas, we’ll witness many more defeats.

We’ve lost this battle but I believe we will still win the war, and in doing so we will offer hope to all Americans that greater justice and equality can be a reality.