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President Obama’s Second Term: Symbolic or Ironic?

MLK’s “dream” was never about electing an African-American president.

Some see President Obama’s re-election as the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream,” while others see the inauguration as an incredible irony, an incongruity between what it is, and what it is not.

On Sunday, January 20th at 12 p.m., America’s 44th president, Barack Obama, will be sworn in for his second term. The public celebration of his inauguration will take place on Monday, January 21st, which is also the legal public holiday celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many see the public swearing-in of the first African-American president taking place on the same day we celebrate the life of one of the greatest Americans as another invaluable symbol, as a breakthrough for America, a double helix. Some see the re-election of President Obama as the realization of Dr. King’s “dream,” while others see the inauguration as an incredible irony, an incongruity between the literal and the implied meaning of the events.

The symbolic significance of the re-election of President Obama cannot be understated. It took this country 219 years to elect its first African-American president (George Washington was elected in 1789). In spite of America’s schizophrenic perspective on “race” (race is really an artificial construct), this country swore in its first African-American president on January 20, 2009. As I reflect upon the historic election of Senator Obama, my thoughts go to the Constitution and three specific provisions:

1. Article 1, Section 2, the Three-Fifths Compromise;

2. Article 1, Section 9, which allowed for the importation of slaves for 21 years after the Constitution was ratified;

3. Article 4, Section 2, the Fugitive Slave clause that allowed for escaped slaves to be returned to slaveholders.

These constitutional provisions come to mind since they were the legal and conceptual foundations of the oppression that Africans in America, and later African-Americans, have been subjected to since the founding of this nation. The election and re-election of President Obama represent how far African-Americans have come.

The Obama administration has done great work. The president is able to claim a number of legislative successes during his first term. For example, the Obama Administration passed or supported the:

• Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010;

• Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act;

• Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act;

• Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and supported marriage equality;

• Appointments of the first black Attorney General, Eric Holder and the first Latina to the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

These are all significant actions and should be recognized as such.

Some see President Obama as the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. Not so fast! Never confuse a down payment with the balance being paid in full. The dream was never about electing an African-American president. The dream was about freedom, justice and equality for the least of us, so that the true meaning of the American creed could be enjoyed by all of us. As Dr. King said, “And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

We must always remember that before Dr. King made reference to “The dream” he said, “But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free … the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination … the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

Hence, the irony of America publically swearing in its first president who is African-American for his second term on the legal public holiday celebrating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that the nightmarish conditions that led to articulation of The Dream still exist in America today!

The dream cannot be fulfilled when a candidate for president has to run a de-racialized campaign in order to make the masses comfortable with the obvious aesthetic. The second inauguration of President Obama does not negate the reality of Driving While Black. It does not erase the fact that unemployment in America is 7.8 percent overall, but more than 17 percent for African-Americans. We cannot ignore the fact that African-Americans make up 13 percent of the population and 53 percent of those incarcerated. Dr. King’s dream was about using the power of government and its resources to eradicate poverty, yet today 14.5 percent of US households – nearly 49 million Americans, including 16.2 million children – struggle to put food on the table. Nearly one in three African-American and Latino children is at risk of hunger. All of this while conservatives want to destroy the public safety net and create a permanent underclass in this country.

It is ironic that in spite of these stark realities for the poor in America, and specifically the poor in African-American communities, African-Americans gave President Obama 95 percent of their support and none of these issues were addressed during the 2012 presidential campaign. As leaders of an invaluable political constituency, too many in African-American leadership are either unwilling or unable to challenge this president to use his bully pulpit to address them.

It is also ironic that as we celebrate the civil rights legacy of Dr. King, a man who vehemently opposed the war in Vietnam, President Obama has a “kill list.” He supports warrantless wiretapping, the indefinite detention of American citizens, drone attacks that kill innocents through collateral damage and the assassination of American citizens any place in the world without judicial review.

The president can proclaim his support for Israel to all corners of the world. He can support marriage equality; immigration reform and through executive order support the Dream Act, but African-Americans are supposed to sit quietly and Hope for Change.

Never confuse a down payment with the balance being paid in full. This inauguration is a great step forward in America but remember, we have miles to go before we sleep.

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