The day after Barack Obama was elected president, I heard people say multiple times that we have now arrived as a "post-racial" nation and that it can now be said that anyone can truly be president if a black man can be. That same day on the front page of The New York Times, Adam Nagourney said the "last racial barrier in American politics" was swept away. While I agree Senator Obama's election was powerfully symbolic, changed the game in many ways, and created new dreams for a generation of children, I knew we must be careful about such statements.
We must recognize that most of the "post-racial" rhetoric has come from white commentators who dream of a color blind society. Most ethnic minorities don't want to be "colorless." They simply want to be treated as equal no matter their color, even embraced as equal in their race or ethnicity. Also, to say all of our racial barriers have been swept away ignores the fact that most people know we will not have a president who is obviously of Arab descent for years, and I still haven't seen someone of Asian descent even sniff the White House. Yes, Obama's election shows that we have come a long way, but we have not yet arrived. There is still a long way to go.
This became very evident at the start of our new year. On January 1 in Oakland, California, Oscar Grant III was shot in the back and killed while lying on the ground in a subway station. The officer was white and the victim was black. Video showed that Mr. Grant was defenseless and didn't seem to pose any threat. Riots have broken out and it has been compared to the riots after the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles in the early 1990's. This analogy carries great weight for me.
In the L.A. riots, Korean owned businesses in black neighborhoods were burned and white police officers were targeted. Several black rioters were killed by the police. Racial tensions were high and they still exist. I am now a biracial man of Korean and white descent serving at a black church blocks from where many of those riots occurred. It has been a long time since those events, but their memory lives on and still influences racial relationships today. Situations such as these forever change lives and communities.
Oscar's mother has called for peace and a halt to the riots. She has said it is best to honor her son's life by practicing peace instead of revenge and violence. This is the first step toward healing a broken community, but it will take time and intentional acts of reconciliation. One of those intentional acts must be a recognition that we have not yet arrived and that there is still much work to do. On that same night, a 23-year-old black man, Robbie Tolan, was shot in the back by a white police officer in his own driveway in Houston, Texas, with his mother watching. It was a predominately white, upscale neighborhood. The vehicle which the family owned was apparently thought to be stolen by the officers on the scene. Many people think the story doesn't hold much weight and has been used as an excuse to follow young black men into neighborhoods they thought they shouldn't be in at night. In another city, New Orleans, on that same night, another black man, Adolf Grimes III, was shot in the back 12 times by police officers. The riots in Oakland have gotten the most press, but this is a national problem.
Many people had forgotten about Rodney King until the riots in Oakland, but his memory has lived on in black communities. So has the memory of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell. These stories are not new. There is an American legacy of unarmed black men being killed, often with gunshots in the dozens, by white police officers. Until we admit this is an American sin that continues to affect racial dynamics in this country, we will not be able to move forward, and we will never "arrive." Yes, one black man will soon be sitting in the White House, but even more lay in graves and hospital beds with bullets in their bodies and no guns in their hands.
Police departments have traditionally protected their own and covered up these cases, and local governments have sided with them, so it is up to the church to make a stand. We must stand with those who are the victims of unwarranted violence, open our doors as places of sanctuary to those families and communities grieving, and lend our voices to the causes of justice and reconciliation. We must bring our nation to confess its sins and repent of them through real expressions of justice. It is going to be an even longer time coming, but one day, with truth-telling, social justice, and reconciliaiton, a change will finally come.
Jimmy McCarty is a student at Claremont School of Theology studying Christian ethics, a minister serving cross-racially at a church in inner-city Los Angeles, and a servant at a homeless shelter five days a week. He blogs at jimmymccarty.wordpress.com.