Sharpton, Obama and the Promise of America

Forty years after the Democratic National Convention refused to seat an integrated delegation from Mississippi led by Fannie Lou Hamer, the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole still finds itself challenged by African-American Democrats to create a more inclusive society.

Reverend Al Sharpton, former Democratic candidate for president, described the promise of America in his address at the Convention. "The promise of America says we will guarantee quality education for all children and not spend more money on metal detectors than computers in our schools... The promise of America provides that those who work in our health care system can afford to be hospitalized in the very beds they clean up every day."

Illinois Senate candidate Barack Obama provided a healthy balance between public and individual responsibility – a balance that so often eludes public policy discussions. Obama affirmed the government role in creating the ladder of opportunity. His white grandfather went to college on the GI Bill and got an FHA mortgage, programs that most often were not open to African-Americans at the time. It is ironic that Obama, who may have the opportunity to be the only black U.S. Senator next year, exemplifies not only black excellence and diligence but also white privilege.

This white privilege seems to be taboo in public discussion. It is usually concealed with the racist rhetoric that white Americans are more prosperous because they worked harder and upheld better moral standards. In recent years, Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve and Ronald Reagan's demonization of the welfare queen have helped keep these stereotypes on the public stage.

When it comes to the racial divide in this country and de-facto white supremacy, the primary cause is not the moral behavior of blacks, or the types of music we listen to, it's institutionalized racism.

African Americans with graduate degrees are two to three times more likely than whites to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of entrepreneurship with small business start-ups. Employed black workers work more hours per week and per year than white workers.

When sociologist Dalton Conley analyzed educational outcomes, he found that family net worth, not race, was the best predictor of high school graduation and college enrollment. At a given level of assets, black students are actually slightly more likely to graduate from high school than white students. The drop-out rate for black students has declined 44% since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet African Americans have not been rewarded for all this effort. For every dollar of per capita white income, blacks had 57 cents in 2001, up from 55 cents in 1968. The racial wealth divide is even worse: the typical black family has less than one-tenth of the median white net worth of $120,000.

In the decades when white income and wealth soared, it was not only due to hard work and talent. It was because of public investment in a ladder of opportunity. The New Deal and the generous post-WWII veterans' benefits largely excluded people of color. Since that time, public investment in opportunity has eroded. Federal spending on affordable housing was cut by three-quarters in the 1980s, and the majority of families of color have been unable to achieve the American dream of homeownership.

Obama and Sharpton, in their speeches, stressed that government must be held responsible for its failures and for countering discrimination. They also both stressed that citizens must be responsible for taking hold of these opportunities. As Mr. Obama asserted, "with just a change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all."

Rev. Sharpton articulated how, from Crispus Attucks to Fannie Lou Hamer until today, African-Americans have been at the forefront of demanding opportunity for all Americans.

Let us all work to continue the African American tradition of both living up to our own personal responsibilities and demanding that the government live up to its promise.


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