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Is Tomorrow a Down Payment on the Dream?

On Meet the Press on Sunday Tavis Smiley made a comment that stuck with me. I have to extract this from a longer statement, and you can find the whole thing here. He said:

… I think, though, it’s important to state that Obama’s election is a down payment on King’s dream, it is not the fulfillment of King’s dream, and that’s a crucial, I think, and critical distinction we have to make. A significant down payment to be sure, and King would certainly be celebrating this moment. But the closest thing in King’s lifetime to this Obama moment was the election of the first black mayor of a major American city, Carl Stokes in Cleveland. King went to Cleveland and, if I can paraphrase it this way, talked about this notion of black faces in high places. And while that’s something to celebrate, there is work to be done and we have got to keep the focus on the issues. And where Mr. Obama is concerned, while black America and all of America will certainly celebrate this, because King is, again, not just a black leader, he’s the best of what America is all about. …

Now Mr. Smiley makes a good point. Election of the first African-American president is not the end of the story in terms of equal rights in America. There will be much more to be done. One of the benefits I see in having Barack Obama as president is that the very fact of his being in office will start many discussions and help change perceptions. He is not so much the sign of the end of a process but rather a milestone showing how far we have come and how far we have to go.

But there is a problem with the whole “payment” and “down-payment” type of language with reference to what has gone on. I’m not talking about the validity of any claims for reparations. I’m talking about the way we think about equal rights and freedom for everyone. It’s practically a cliche to say that if one person isn’t free, then nobody is free. But I don’t believe we often think about how true that is.

In doing injustice to one group of our citizens, we also injure ourselves. It is tragic for any group to be oppressed, but what about the insanity of oppressors? One of the things that the bus protest in Montgomery managed to communicate to some remarkably thick headed people was that the African-American community was part of the same economy, and that by oppressing that part of the community the opportunities of everyone were limited.

The south didn’t lose the civil war because they were morally wrong, though they certainly were–they lost because they did not have the economy to handle such a war. One reason was that a slave economy was really not all that efficient.

I would regard slavery as immoral even if it was not also quite insane, but there is a certain disgusting pathos about people who are oppressing someone else while at the same time making their own lives worse than they might be otherwise. Perhaps there is a reason why white-supremacy rallies do not appear to be attended by the best and the brightest!

Now there are certainly some people who can prosper in such an economy, but overall and in the long term such things tend to fail, and to fail in a spectacular manner.

As a Christian I believe we do owe one another allegiance, and that we do have a duty to help free the oppressed, to care for the poor and needy. I think there is a moral duty to do such things not because they are good for me, but because they are good. At the same time, I think God has so ordered the universe that it seems that I can do good for myself by doing good for others, that I will live in a richer and better society if I am willing to sacrifice for others and fight for their rights.

Ultimately, the greatest good that can come from this election is not in the person we elected, or in specific milestones in our progress, but in the changes in the way we think about freedom, and in a determination to pursue freedom and justice for everyone. The down-payment was paid much more when each person made his or her decision about the election, and decided to vote based on the content of the candidate’s character and the good of the country, rather than on the color of that candidate’s skin.

(Note that, as I wrote before [see Yes, Race Influences my Vote], I believe there was a value in electing an African-American president of the United States. I put that under “good of the country.” Were the content of his character not appropriate, however, the value of that symbolism would be inadequate to drive my vote.)

Now some people did vote purely or mostly on the basis of race, at least as indicated by the polls. Some cast their vote out of hatred. But I believe that the majority went out a voted their conscience, and that was the down-payment–not the inauguration of the particular person who was elected.

We have much further to go in terms of equal treatment of all people. One example of the type of insanity I described is the discharge of much needed linguists from the military simply because they are gay or lesbian. In a time when we have a documented need for more linguists, we have released some of them because of a sexual preference. There is an unmeasured and unmeasurable claim that morale will suffer that is allowed to overcome a demonstrable need. That’s insanity, in my view. We need to change it.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” means that qualified people who want to serve their country are not permitted to do so. At the same time the country is denied their services. That’s insanity and it needs to stop.

Our attitudes towards race and toward all other forms of discrimination–all discrimination that is based on irrelevant factors is not only immoral in itself, it is insane. In allowing freedom to be withdrawn from others, we cultivate oppression for ourselves.

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One Comment

  1. The insanity doesn’t stop with race. As you mentioned it affects all aspects of our society. The socio-economic divide (that race problems) is a symptom of, divide this country. The most basic services are denied to those who need it the most.

    Jesus reached out to the least and the lost, and when Christians allow children to go to bed hungry, and citizens of all races and ages go without access to health care and education, can we really call ourselves followers of Christ?

    Tomorrow is a huge step in American history, but as stated, it’s not the destination… it’s just the beginning.


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