If anyone thought the inauguration of Barack Obama as president heralded the end of racism in America, they should look no further than the tea party rallies held recently.
The racial slogans and the mocking signs show how far we still have to go. Perhaps even more troubling are the economic indicators that show how far the recession is setting back the fragile fortunes of people of color.
On the other hand, extraordinary possibilities open up for us as a nation if we succeed in coming together to embrace the strengths of the country’s growing diversity.
First, the bad news. Before the Great Recession hit, the average family of color had a net worth of less than $30,000; the average white family’s net worth was $170,000.
With the economic downturn, things got worse for almost everyone, but especially for people of color. White unemployment rose to 9 percent, but unemployment among blacks is at a whopping 16 percent, and among Latinos it’s nearly 13 percent. The economic crisis hits blacks and Latinos in other ways, too. They were far more likely to be saddled with high-rate, subprime loans than their white counterparts with similar qualifications, and they are more likely to be facing the loss of their main asset—their home.
In spite of all this, a real post-racial society is still possible. The U.S. Census Bureau says that by mid-century, people of color will be the majority in the United States, and the political clout of these communities is bound to grow. Stories in the spring issue of YES! Magazine show that the movements that joined hands to elect Obama continue to unite people across race lines for economic justice and livable communities. Events like the US Social Forum are bringing together thousands of leaders of all races, many of whom rarely are featured in the media.
And the culture is shifting, too. Multiethnic music, art and culture are popular—especially among young people—and people of all ages are getting increasingly comfortable being part of mixed-race families and workplaces.
White people may feel we’re giving up long-held privileges if we acknowledge our nation as a multiracial society, one in which all its inhabitants are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But an unequal society is profoundly unhealthy.
According to researcher and author Richard Wilkinson, even those at the top of an unequal society have a lower life expectancy and lower quality of life compared to those living in more egalitarian circumstances. So the privileged as well as the excluded stand to gain from a more just and inclusive society.
No matter what our race, we will all benefit from the historic journey to a fairer society. Our community life can be much richer and more authentic when every member can rely on being respected — regardless of language, religion, culture or ancestry. If we learn to work together, we may find that the shouting and vitriol of talk shows make way for respect. As the tone of our national dialogue improves, we have a much better chance of coming together behind real answers to our national crises.
The election of Barack Obama built on centuries of struggle against injustice. It’s a milestone in the healing of a nation torn apart by contradictions—the thirst for freedom and the desire for fresh opportunities, but also the massacres of native peoples and the enslavement of African families. The promise of a more perfect union can only be realized if we walk toward a future committed to liberty and justice—this time—for all.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine (www.yesmagazine.org), a national media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical action for a better world. The spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine, America: The Remix, focuses on possibilities for a multiracial America.
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