Victor A. Patton: Milestone builds hope for equality, progress

January 21, 2009 

Victor Patton

Writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied in his 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk," that the great "problem" of the 20th century would be that of the "color line."

If Du Bois were alive today, standing at this transformational crossroads in history, with the inauguration of the first black U.S. president, perhaps he'd forecast that in the 21st century, we'll finally begin to see the "color line" and the racial divide in America slowly disappear -- or at least become less prominent.

Will that color line completely vanish in this century? That's probably wishful thinking. But as the past century has illustrated, a lot can happen in a hundred years.

Although many of the issues Du Bois raised in his seminal book remain with us today, the election of President Barack Obama is indicative that an amazing transformation of the American consciousness has taken place. Only 50 years ago, the scourge of racial segregation and Jim Crow were the laws of the land in many states.

My mother, who will be 78 years old next month, remembers those days well. As a child growing up in segregation-era Mobile, Ala., Mom had to sit in the "colored" section if she wanted to go see a movie or ride a bus.

With that in mind, it's amazing to think even with the legacy of institutionalized racism that runs deep through the veins of this young nation, within a relatively short time, a person of color has ascended to America's highest office.

As Bob Dylan sang, "The times they are a changing" -- but for the better.

One reason for that change is the dying of the old guard. The Bull Connors, J. Edgar Hoovers and Strom Thurmonds of the world -- people who for years trumpeted white supremacy as official U.S. government policy -- are leaving us.

They had their time, and thank God it's coming to an end.

And people who express or hold such views, especially those in power, are becoming more and more irrelevant as the younger generation moves into adulthood and ultimately positions of power.

While everyone votes for his or her own reason, there were millions of people who chose Obama because of his message and the belief that he was the most qualified person -- who just happens to be black.

Sure, there were those who voted for Obama because of his race -- just as there were those on the opposite end of the spectrum who said they would never support a black man as president, regardless of his qualifications. For others, the election may have been merely a referendum on the Bush administration.

What is significant, however, is that there were obviously enough people of all ethnicities and backgrounds who didn't consider race an important factor in making their choice for president. In fact, many political pundits hypothesized before the election that Obama's ethnicity would only serve as an obstacle to his victory.

Obama not only defied the pundits -- he defied the idea that the leadership of the world's most powerful nation is still a "white males only" club. With the smashing of that proverbial glass ceiling, it's no longer an unforeseeable possibility that we may one day have a female, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander -- or even an openly gay or lesbian -- U.S. president.

The possibilities indeed, are now limitless.

I had the pleasure of meeting Obama in 2005, in perhaps the oddest of places -- the bathroom of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

I was covering the 36th annual NAACP Image Awards for a publication in Southern California. I was in the restroom, and standing in the stall next to me was then-Sen. Obama. He was being awarded the group's Chairman's Award at the event. I had to laugh, because I had no idea that my most memorable moment of the night was going to happen in a restroom.

As I was about to walk out, I introduced myself to Obama. At that time, he hadn't announced his run for the presidency and was still considered a rising star. I wished him luck, and told him I looked forward to following his political career.

Little did I know, that I was shaking the hand of the future 44th president of the United States.

Still, with all of the justifiable enthusiasm for this historical moment, it's important to separate your excitement from the immediate necessity of asking important questions about how this administration will address the major issues of today.

After the confetti has been cleared, Obama will have more than his share of crises to address. With a deepening economic recession, government bailouts of corporations, wars on two fronts, massive corporate layoffs and global warming, it's probable that the major issues facing his administration won't be solved in one term.

Hopefully, Obama will be able to build coalitions and bridges across the aisle of political partisanship and ideology in order to solve those problems. Regardless of the hope and enthusiasm generated by Obama's campaign and election, the press and media must remain vigilant in scrutinizing how his administration writes the next chapter of our history. There is simply too much at stake to do otherwise.

In many ways, it's as if Obama has been given the keys to an old Ford Model T -- the tires are worn, the headlights shattered and the upholstery is ragged. The body may also be a little rusty, but for the most part, it's in solid condition.

The best part of that metaphor, in terms of future presidents, is that Americans will now care less about the skin color of the person behind the wheel -- and more about whether he or she can get the car into running condition.

Hopefully, that person won't be a bad driver.

Victor A. Patton covers crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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