New Deal to Big Deal

What FDR's breakthrough can teach us about our post-racial future.

Phot by Getty Images

Many worried, for instance, that the Jeremiah Wright affair during the primaries had turned Obama into “the black candidate” in a way that his skin color and ancestry previously had not. That dynamic was present in 1997 when the Roosevelt memorial was built on the National Mall. The image discreetly obscures the fact that the president is confined to a wheelchair. The decision to literally cloak his disability generated so much criticism from advocates of disabled rights, that a second sculpture of him in a wheelchair was constructed.

Barack Obama’s election does not automatically elevate us beyond race any more than Roosevelt’s automatically erased our biases against the disabled.

The election of Barack Obama as our 44th president gives us a clear indicator that racism has greatly diminished in this society, but it’s not dead yet. Last year, the EEOC received 30,510 racial discrimination complaints that resulted in $67.7 million in monetary benefits for plaintiffs—not including monies awarded through litigation. Amid our euphoria over this accomplishment, it seems almost distasteful to bring up the nagging racial disparities in health care, life expectancy, income and within the criminal justice system, none of which seem poised to disappear on Inauguration Day.

In coming years, there will be endless debates on the meaning of Obama’s election—just as there were debates over the meaning of Roosevelt’s disability on the National Mall. But history seems to suggest that we should congratulate ourselves after the Obama presidency: Grand moments of symbolism are important, but the real victories come in the incremental steps to ensure that opportunity filters down to every corner of society, not just 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

William Jelani Cobb is associate professor of history at Spelman College and author of “The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays.”