On Tuesday, Wil Haygood, a noted columnist for the Washington Post, published an article entitled “Inauguration Will Cement Ties Between Obama, Martin Luther King Jr.” The article continues a line of rhetoric that places President Obama as the paradigmatic representation of Dr. King’s dream as articulated in Dr. King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. To say anymore than Dr. King would be happy to see President Obama, or any person of African descent, take the presidential oath of office overstates President Obama’s effectualizing of Dr. King’s dream, and undermines Dr. King’s position.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived and died agitating on issues that President Obama has barely mentioned in his first four years as president. Before I go any further, I want to be clear that I am not blaming or harping on President Obama, this critique is intended for writers and thought leaders like Wil Haygood that want so desperately for Dr. King’s dream to be realized that they will hitch it to anything that comes marginally close. Haygood quotes Rev. Jesse Jackson stating, “‘President Obama represents the last lap of this unfinished race’ to achieve equality.” Such a statement forces me to ponder, whose race and what finish line are we supposedly crossing?
The euphoria around President Obama’s re-election has yet again blinded some from the reality for most black people in America. The wealth gap in the United States between the “haves” and the “have-nots” has widened under President Obama and continues to do so. The average black boy or girl in any urban city is still more likely to dropout of school, be incarcerated, and continue the cycle of poverty than their peers. The democratic process has become less democratic with gerrymandered districts creating safe seats that will keep the political stage exactly as it is. There have been no major policy initiatives to address poverty, educational inequity (no, Race to the Top does not count as a major policy initiative), wealth disparities, or institutional racism. The United States Supreme Court is posed to end affirmative action as we know it with its upcoming ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas and threatens to end the most important enforcement provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And yet, given this nightmarish environment some in the African-American community look to President Obama as the realization of a dream that was so salient that it has survived the span of five decades. It is unfair to President Obama and it stamps a “mission accomplished” sign on a race still being run, which is more egregious than President Bush’s “mission accomplished” flap in the middle of the current “war on terror.”
What is most troubling about the equating of President Obama to the realization of Dr. King’s dream is the sense of complacency that it justifies for members of the black community. We have not arrived, the mission is not accomplished, we are not in the “last lap,” we are merely out of the starting blocks. Furthermore, President Obama is not the person with whom all of our aspirations should lie. His job is to run the country and a part of running the country is being responsive to the passionate desires of the country. Can you hear the passionate desires of the black community? Neither can I, they have been silenced by the idea that President Obama is the dreamkeeper. Can you hear the passionate desires of the Hispanic community? Absolutely. Immigration reform is constantly rolling off the tongue of both sides of the political aisle, including President Obama. Can you hear the passionate desires of the LGBT community? Yes, and those desires are not likely to be denied by even a conservative Supreme Court by June of this year. These communities have not stopped agitating, but telling the black community that President Obama is “what we’ve been waiting for,” has the effect of communicating that our work is done.
Furthermore, equating Dr. King’s dream to President Obama’s presidency is unacceptable because of what it communicates to the rest of America. When the black community embraces the idea that the most aspirational goals set forth in Dr. King’s dream have been achieved it paves the way for the disbanding of affirmative action, the reduction in inner city school funding, and cutting back on programs that aid the impoverished. In effect it gives license to the holistic untruth that African-Americans have achieved some semblance of equality in the United States.
Let me be clear, President Obama’s re-election is a cause for celebration for the black community, but it is not the solidification of President Obama as the realization of Dr. King’s dream. Dr. King’s dream was and continues to be much bigger, more comprehensive, and more powerful than President Obama’s second term. Haygood is right in as much as he claims that President Obama is connected in a meaningful way to Dr. King’s legacy; but while President Obama and the Washington elite recover from the inaugural balls next Tuesday morning, a little black boy in Atlanta will go to a failing school with an empty stomach, and he too is an heir to Dr. King’s legacy.