By Mark Mellman - 01/21/09 12:30 PM EST
As we traverse history’s long and winding road, it is easy to mistake major signposts for ultimate destinations.
Wilson mistook the League of Nations for “a definite guarantee of peace
… It is a definite guarantee against the things which have just come
near bringing the whole structure of civilization into ruin.” Just 20
years later, the world was engulfed in an even more destructive war
that came even nearer to annihilating “the whole structure of
So it is with Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Americans can take justifiable pride in electing an African-American
president. It is a remarkable achievement, one that few other countries
in the world — either critics or allies — could emulate. Americans
certainly understand Obama’s accession of the presidency as evidence of
progress, with 71 percent telling Gallup it is one of the two or three
most important advances for blacks in the past century.
in our self-congratulation, however, is the risk that we confuse the
milestone for the ultimate goal. Too many Americans seem to have
concluded, wrongly, that Obama’s election puts an end to the problem of
racism. It is a sentiment we heard in focus groups and individual
interviews even before the president had captured the Democratic
nomination. “Look how well Obama is doing; discrimination isn’t a
problem in America anymore,” concluded discussants.
polling reinforces that qualitative assessment. Nearly half of whites
in this country believe that all or most of the goals for which Dr.
Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement struggled have already
been achieved. Indeed, twice as many whites as blacks say
African-Americans have already achieved full equality.
While nearly two-thirds of blacks believe that African-Americans suffer discrimination in their communities, a 55 percent majority of whites believe discrimination does not exist where they live. An even larger number of blacks, 74 percent, believe they have personally suffered discrimination.
With so many African-Americans having had
personal experience with racism, it is no wonder that only 38 percent
feel blacks in their community have an equal chance of getting a job
for which they are qualified and just 22 percent feel they get equal
treatment from police. Even when it comes to spending green in our
nation’s stores, most African-Americans believe they suffer unequal
Yet, in part blinded by Obama’s stunning success,
whites seem largely oblivious to continuing discrimination. More than
half see no discrimination in their communities, while 83 percent say
blacks get equal treatment in hiring and shopping, and 60 percent
believe blacks get equal treatment from police.
we know discrimination remains more prevalent than whites believe, not
only because African-Americans tell pollsters they feel it, but also
because unambiguous evidence proves it.
In one of several
experiments, Princeton sociologist Devah Pager sent otherwise
identically matched black and white men, posing as job-seekers, to
apply for entry-level positions with hundreds of employers. White
applicants were more than twice as likely as African-Americans to get a
callback interview. Even more striking, in about half the applications
the white men “admitted” a felony conviction on their résumé. Whites
with a “felony record” were slightly more successful in getting a
callback interview than African-Americans with no criminal past.
experiments sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban
Development and analyzed by economists at Syracuse University revealed
that African-Americans posing as prospective homebuyers had an almost
40 percent chance of suffering some form of housing discrimination when
dealing with Realtors.
While Barack Obama’s election is a
major milepost on the road to equality, sadly, it does not herald the
end of racism. Mistaking the milepost for the end of the road only
makes us less likely to eliminate the grim reality of discrimination
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.