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Not the end of the road

As we traverse history’s long and winding road, it is easy to mistake major signposts for ultimate destinations.

Woodrow 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 civilization.”

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.

Inherent 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.

New 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 treatment.

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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Similar 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 that remains.

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.