The Weight of History

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The presidency of Barack Obama, as our first black commander in chief, continues to be a learning experience for the country. For a lot of African-Americans, it's been something of a roller coaster ride. It's reminiscent of some of the feelings we had after integration.

Many of us were pleasantly surprised when Obama was elected. We never dreamed we would see a black man lead the country. We experienced an indescribable sense of elation, shared by many white Americans. The weight of so much history was lifted. So that euphoria didn't last. It was clear soon enough that segments of the population would not accept Obama as the president. We see it a number of ways; the viciousness of some of the opposition, the birthers who insist he wasn't born in the country, and most recently, the growing number who say he's a Muslim.

I have been taken aback by the resistance. And then embarrassed by my naiveté. What did I really expect? African-Americans who clung to the belief the country was too racist to elect a black president were wrong, but by a fraction, not the whole. Once we actually had a black president, we were faced with the reaction of those who reject the idea. It feels like we're seeing an increase in prejudice that's also aimed at Latinos and American Muslims. After that initial euphoria, what a letdown.

It made me think about integration. Segregation was oppressive and limiting, hurting both blacks and whites and stymieing the country's potential. It also offered a shield. In all black neighborhoods and schools, individuals didn't encounter the ugly face of white racism. Black families often protected their children from demeaning experiences. However, black children integrating white schools and black families moving into white neighborhoods encountered white racism up close and personal. People were buoyed by the victory of integration, but when they experienced it, it could also feel like a let down.

I don't think anyone supporting racial equality would advocate the return of racial segregation or suggest it was a mistake to elect a black president. Both developments represent progress, even as they have exposed how far we have to go.


With a Perspective, I'm Brenda Payton.