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Obama Gives Us a Foot in the Door

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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November 5, 2008

(Originally posted at Daily Kos.)

The historic election of Barack Obama is groundbreaking for a host of reasons, not least of which is the illustration it provides of the status of race in the United States in 2008. The election of an African American is stunning considering the tragic history of race in this country. After all, despite the enactment of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, it was still necessary to pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in order to address the wholesale disenfranchisement of black voters which occurred despite the specific protections promised by the Constitution nearly a century before. So recent was this broad denial of voting opportunity that a significant number of people casting their votes in support of Obama were earlier precluded from voting entirely on the basis of their race.

Nor is voting the only area in which we have witnessed enormous changes. As commentators have pointed out, Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws had not yet been struck down at the time Barack Obama was born. Given that history, it is truly extraordinary that Obama carried a state in which his parents, had they elected to live there, would have been considered criminals solely by virtue of their being married and of different races

Obama’s election therefore represents a milestone in this country’s battle against discrimination. It is a victory not only for persons of color but for all Americans. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the election was seeing a crowd of Obama supporters which included people of every race and ethnicity, every age and every economic level. This inclusiveness bodes well for the nation’s future.

In the days ahead, much of Obama’s success will depend upon his ability to carry that inclusiveness forward in order to assure that all citizens enjoy equal opportunities — both for their own benefit and the benefit of the country as a whole.

Much of the work of the ACLU, and its Racial Justice Program in particular, has concentrated on trying to assure that the promise of equality and opportunity exemplified by Obama’s election is extended to all Americans. Examples of this are many. In the area of voting, one of Obama’s greatest achievements was to inspire and encourage the broadest possible participation in the electoral process. Likewise, the ACLU’s efforts to restore the opportunity to vote to persons convicted of crimes who have discharged their debt to society by completing their sentences is an attempt to make it possible for those people to become productive participants in democratic society.

Obama’s path to the presidency is the result in large part of his taking full advantage of educational opportunities provided to him. Much of the ACLU’s work seeks to make opportunities available to all children regardless of race or ethnicity or economic status through the removal of barriers which unfairly impede the progress of many students. Through its work attempting to increase graduation rates, reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation, address inequity in educational resources and attempting to assure safety in schools while keeping children in classrooms and out of the criminal justice system, we hope to provide all students with the opportunity to realize their potential and become contributors to society as a whole.

Through its work combating racial and ethnic profiling and its efforts to assure fairness in the criminal justice system, the ACLU seeks to restore public confidence in the law enforcement and criminal justice system in much the same way that the recent election re-affirmed the democratic process and helped restore the perception of the integrity of the process to people in this country and abroad.

A number of observers, including Sen. John McCain in his concession speech, described Obama’s success as a sign that we as a nation have overcome our unfortunate racial history. Despite the remarkable advance which Obama’s success represents, far too many people remain hampered by unequal opportunities for us to declare final victory over inequality. But progress is undeniable and the path we must pursue to assure that all Americans enjoy the opportunity to realize their potential as individuals and citizens is clear. Having seen Barack Obama pass through the door of opportunity, it would be tragic to permit it to close for so many others.

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