When I was a teenager, my formative, if largely vicarious, political experience was the civil rights movement. It was a time of great issues bravely contested, a moment replete with heroes and villains. It was George Wallace vowing “Segregation forever!” Bull Connor setting dogs on demonstrators, and Klansmen bombing black churches. It was the March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the showdown at the Edmund Pettis bridge, and much more. Anyone who sang “We Shall Overcome” in those electric years will welcome a new fact of our public life: America – a country whose original sin was slavery – has become a place in which an African-American can be a major party’s candidate for president.
The same honesty that led Americans to confront racist prejudices a half-century ago now compels another question: Would a President Barack Obama be good for black America?
The answer may seem obvious. The inauguration of an African-American president on January 20, 2009, would be the final vindication of the civil rights crusade; it would give new depth of meaning to the blood sacrifices of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Viola Liuzo, and the movement’s other martyrs. It would inspire young African-Americans of the 21st century, even as it honored the memory of ancestors once treated as chattels. It would put a president uniquely attuned to the trials that continue to beset black America into the White House.
But would it?
Several facets of Senator Obama’s public career raise serious doubts about the easy assumption that his presidency would be a boon to those who share his African heritage.
There is, for example, Obama’s lack of sympathy for vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other mechanisms for giving the parents of inner-city children real educational choice. There are many barriers to breaking the cycle of poverty in America’s blighted urban areas: drugs, crime, an epidemic of out-of-wedlock births and fatherless children. Amidst all that sorrow, there is no greater sorrow than the failure of public education to deliver equal opportunity for all. That failure is not a question of money; the government schools in Washington, D.C., spend twice the national per-pupil average and produce one educational disaster after another.
There is change we can believe in here: the success of inner-urban Catholic schools. Will President Obama convene an educational summit aimed at saving those schools financially? Or will he kowtow to teachers’ unions and other reactionary forces impeding the empowerment of the poor through educational choice?
Then there is the matter of abortion. The black political leadership’s defense of the abortion license is shocking; it may be the first example in history of minority political leaders acquiescing in the decimation of their own people. There are many reasons why Hispanics are now America’s most populous minority; the slaughter of the unborn in black America since Roe vs. Wade is one of those reasons. Barack Obama is a genuine abortion radical, who has fought against both partial birth abortion bans and legal protection for infants who survive late-term abortions. An Obama administration would likely accelerate the abortion carnage in our inner cities. Is that good for black America?
As for the Jeremiah Wright business: Will Senator Obama reject the narrative of victimization peddled by his former pastor and tell black America that bunkering down inside that false story is self-demeaning and self-defeating? Will Obama reject Wright’s faux-liberationist condemnation of “middle-classism?” Will Obama challenge black Americans, caught in the trap of conspiracy theories spun by Wright and others, to jettison the belief that AIDS was invented by a U.S. government bent on racist genocide?
Change is his antiphon; Barack Obama has surely changed American politics. Will he acknowledge that his candidacy was possible because a lot of America had already changed? Will he confront the shake-down operations of black race-baiters and the prejudices within the black community? Will he listen to the pro-life voices – and they are many – among African-Americans? Will he adopt Bill Cosby’s message of African-American dignity and responsibility?
Urgent questions. The answers to them will determine whether a President Obama would be good for black America.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.