As our country prepares to make history next week, I have been thinking a lot about race. My father came to America from Bangladesh to pursue his education and a better life, just like Obama's father. He expected that hard work would be rewarded. Like other immigrant families we rarely discussed race; it was assumed we would become "model minorities." While many will see Barack Obama's achievement as a sign that our nation has moved past race, I hope that for immigrants like my parents it will encourage a much-needed conversation.
Forty-five years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream that America would achieve its greatness by eliminating racism, race still has its effects. Dr. King reminds us that the promissory note signed by our founding fathers that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" remains unpaid. No matter who is elected president, the time has come to cash the check of freedom and equality for all Americans.
Although immigrants have always faced our own unfair treatment, we should also examine our role in American racism. Much energy has rightfully been spent examining relations between blacks and whites, but little attention has been given to the relationship between blacks and non-Whites. Sadly while many minorities suffered discrimination in their countries of origin, only a few have stood in solidarity with their African-American brothers and sisters. Fewer still understand or acknowledge the debt we all owe to the civil rights movement. In our drive to succeed, we sometimes forget that there were those before us who worked hard without being rewarded.
While we were taught to play by the rules, the breaking of unjust rules made our current lives possible. If Rosa Parks had not refused to give up her seat, if Martin Luther King Jr. had not urged civil disobedience we may still be waiting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed racial segregation or the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which allowed many of our families to immigrate to the United States. As our nation braces for an economic downturn, no doubt racism will rear its ugly head. It is long overdue to appreciate the efforts of African Americans in keeping us accountable to our highest ideals.
The chains of overt discrimination may have been broken, but the poison of prejudice still lingers. Shamefully some of us cross the street when an African-American man walks in our direction. Others claim that blacks are less intelligent or more likely to commit crimes. Even some with the darkest complexion and most liberal politics shudder at the thought of their daughter marrying a "kallu" or "darkie."
I regret the times I have lacked the moral courage to speak out against such bigotry or ignored racist jokes. As a Muslim-American, I am especially grateful to the civil rights movement for guidance on rights protection post-9/11. I am embarrassed at how African-American Muslims are treated by Muslim immigrants and humbled by their graciousness in dealing with it. Let the conversation begin with my apology.
In this campaign, questions about Barack Obama's experience or identity often mask intolerance. We may not admit our bias, but let us not vote based on our fears. Perhaps with the inauguration of a President Obama, we will come to celebrate the true gift that is America—one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Next week I will cry tears of joy at how far we have come and dread how far we still must go. Record numbers of Americans will have voted for a leader who embodies the hopes of our great nation. Yet millions more will still face health care, employment and other socioeconomic disparities because of their race or class. Others will continue to claim that Sen. Obama and his supporters do not represent the "real America."
No matter what happens next week, let us come together as a nation—of natives and refugees, founding fathers and immigrants, descendents of slaveholders and slaves to reclaim the promise of America. Fortunately my father was able to achieve the American Dream for his four children, but only because others sacrificed to overcome injustice. As Dr. King pointed out, we cannot walk alone—many immigrants in fact do stand shoulder to shoulder with others to fight inequity. Yes, we still have a ways to go before we are truly equal, but another payment will have been made on that promissory note of equality.
Moushumi Khan is a Bangladeshi-American attorney and a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government where she was a Zuckerman Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership.