Facing the American Future

A letter from The Root’s Managing Editor, Joel Dreyfuss.

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To our readers,

Less than a month ago, I agreed to take over as the managing editor of The Root. I am very excited at the opportunity to work with Editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr. and our great team of editors and writers. I am also awed by the challenge. The role of African Americans in the United States and the world has undergone a profound transformation in the last 40 years, and as a journalist, columnist and editor, I have had the opportunity to cover, analyze and help define it. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, I welcome the opportunity to help you understand the continuing changes, the remaining obstacles and the opportunities that lie ahead.

The election of Barack Obama, in my opinion, was less a breakthrough than the culmination of the progress that black Americans have made since passage of the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. Without the intense scrutiny that Obama’s remarkable campaign underwent, African-American achievement became much more part of the routine of daily life in these United States.

In the last two decades especially, the ascendance of black CEOs, senior corporate executives, mayors, members of Congress, investment bankers, presidential cabinet members, university professors, NFL coaches and quarterbacks, police chiefs, neurosurgeons, law partners, state governors, construction crew chiefs, union leaders and head nurses, while not yet quite ordinary, became commonplace enough that race was no longer the prime defining characteristic of their achievement.  If you understand this trend, then you understand where Barack Obama came from, and why, ultimately, he was able to prevail.

At the same time, pockets of intense pathology continue to fester in our communities: too many children born out of wedlock, too many poor single-parent homes, too many men in prison, too many young people out of work or who have never worked, and too many devastated communities where the only significant economic activities are illegal. We cannot pretend these conditions don’t exist, and we should dedicate ourselves to helping increase opportunities for the less fortunate, define values that serve us all for the better, and pressure our political leaders to provide the resources that can solve many of these problems.

At the same time, we must also battle against being defined solely by our shortcomings. It may smack of conservatism to note that most African Americans are not poor, not in jail, nor unemployed, but those facts come from the U.S. census and they’ve been true since the 1970s. As studies repeatedly show, the values of African Americans hew closely to the American mainstream. We believe in hard work, in meritocratic advancement and in democracy.


Where do we stand on the threshold of 2010? The leadership of black America is undergoing a change, with an impatient group of leaders from Obama’s generation anxious to displace the Black Boomers who led the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. But the future of African Americans is closely tied to the fate of the United States, which is more uncertain today than it has ever been. The United States has major centers of dynamic growth and entrepreneurship like Silicon Valley and the Southwest that help attracts millions of immigrants each year. It is still the world’s largest economy, with the biggest consumer market in the world. It is a military superpower, with the capacity to wage two wars halfway around the world with little direct impact on most of its citizens. American culture, much of it rooted in African-American creativity, is one of our biggest exports, admired around the world—even in places where American policy is reviled.


But America has shown its fragile side in the last years of the decade. The financial crisis has delivered a crushing blow to middle-class dreams, with the double punch of 10 percent unemployment (up to 15 percent among African Americans) and the housing collapse. Manufacturing, which created a vast middle class, has shrunk or moved away. As competition has become increasingly global, vast segments of Americans are being poorly educated, unprepared to compete for jobs with the millions of bright young people in India, China, Singapore and Eastern Europe. And as more skilled jobs move abroad, efforts to retrain American workers remain spotty and uneven.


President Obama is confronting the limits of American military power even as he escalates a war in Afghanistan that has little support even in his own country—and a lot less abroad. China has just flexed its muscles at the climate summit in Copenhagen, indicating it is expecting to be treated as an equal by the United States, a move that leaves our traditional allies on the sidelines. And other emerging economies like Brazil, India and Turkey are not only demanding to be in the room at crucial global negotiations, they want to be around the table and have their views taken seriously as well.


The hope for a fresh approach from the first African-American president has run into the brick wall of conventional wisdom. Obama is learning that rhetoric does not change minds as much as action. His moves in the foreign policy arena, initially promising because of his expressed determination to close the prison at Guantanamo, restore human rights as a priority and establish a more balanced Middle East policy, have faded—and so have the hopes that America can win hearts and minds in the battle for the souls of many of the world’s Muslims.

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