Isn’t it ironic, he asked me, that the organization responsible for breaking two of the biggest criminal justice horror stories of the 21st century might have to shut down for lack of financial support?
Ironic it is! Friends of Justice set up shop in Jena shortly after Barack Obama announced his presidential campaign. How strange is was that we should be talking about nooses hanging from trees with America on the verge of electing its first black president.
We have come so far. We have so far to go.
Witt is aware that advocacy organizations, large and small, raise money by identifying a bogeyman and presenting themselves as the only thing standing between the public and certain disaster. Conservatives and liberals both play this game. Reverend Dobson’s wacky letter from the future is an extreme example of the genre–his purple prose inspired by the desperation of the Christian Right.
So what happens when a progressive black man is elected president and you don’t have George W. Bush to kick around any more?
“For many Americans,” Witt writes, the election of America’s first black president on the same day that Nebraska banned all affirmative action laws “add up to one conclusion when it comes to the long and bitter struggle over civil rights: Problem solved. Everyone’s equal now. Let’s move on.”
I told Witt that Friends of Justice doesn’t assault straw man antagonists, so I doubt much will change. In Jena, for instance, it was tempting to suggest that the problem was a racist DA. But Reed Walters is just one symptom of a broken system.
Al Sharpton’s comments are encouraging: “The issue now is not racism in terms of a guy with a Klan hood,” he told Witt. “The issue is inequality and bringing about the change we have voted for. With a strongly Democratic Congress and a black president, if we can’t pass legislation now to fix the education system and the criminal justice system, then we are simply incompetent.”
I doubt it will be that easy, but it’s good to see Rev. Sharpton focusing on systemic issues.
In wake of Obama’s victory, civil rights leaders make adjustments
By Howard Witt | Tribune correspondent
November 6, 2008
HOUSTON-On the very day that the rest of America elected the first black president in the nation’s history, voters in Nebraska approved a referendum banning all government affirmative action programs in the state.
For many Americans, those two developments add up to one conclusion when it comes to the long and bitter struggle over civil rights: Problem solved. Everyone’s equal now. Let’s move on.
Or, as Ward Connerly, the black conservative activist from California who has led a national crusade against race-based affirmative action programs, put it: “We have overcome the scourge of race.”
Civil rights leaders across the country scarcely had time to savor Sen. Barack Obama’s unprecedented election victory before grappling with an ironic new dilemma Wednesday: How to keep the nation’s focus on the continuing racial injustices they see when an African-American will be occupying the White House.
“Now that we’ve got a black person in the most powerful and most highly symbolic place, I do expect many white Americans will consider it one less reason for black Americans to whine,” said James Rucker, founder of Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group with more than 400,000 members. “The problem with that is, we still have housing discrimination, hate crimes, the overrepresentation of African-Americans in prison and inequities in education. One election doesn’t make all that go away.”
Obama’s election feels historically cleansing to Americans of all races who know that when the nation was founded more than 200 years ago, blacks were not even regarded as fully human. But even though the most overt forms of institutional discrimination, like segregation and bans on interracial marriage, were purged from the nation’s lawbooks a generation ago, profound social and economic disparities still divide blacks from whites in America.
For example, the income gap between blacks and whites has been slowly closing since the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But at its current rate, it still would take five centuries for blacks to reach income equality with whites, according to a study earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
To address such enduring inequalities in the new age of the Obama presidency, Rev. Al Sharpton, a leader of some of the nation’s largest and most visible civil rights protests over the last decade, already was contemplating how to recalibrate his approach.
“The movement has to go from confrontation to accountability,” Sharpton said. “The issue now is not racism in terms of a guy with a Klan hood. The issue is inequality and bringing about the change we have voted for. With a strongly Democratic Congress and a black president, if we can’t pass legislation now to fix the education system and the criminal justice system, then we are simply incompetent.”
At the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and best known civil rights organization, joy over Obama’s election was mixed with caution.
“We now will have a former civil rights lawyer and community organizer in the White House, so that should mean on certain issues we will have to do less convincing,” said Benjamin Jealous, the organization’s president. “But at the same time, we have to remind Americans that racism still exists. The man referred to as President Barack Hussein Obama would still have a hard time catching a cab in Chicago.”
Other civil rights leaders noted that, long before Obama rose to national prominence, many whites had already grown weary of hearing about racial justice issues.
Alan Bean, a Baptist preacher who directs a small Texas-based civil rights group called Friends of Justice, has worked to expose several cases of alleged racial bias in small-town criminal courts, including last year’s Jena 6 case that drew more than 20,000 civil rights protesters to the small Louisiana town.
This week, he issued a plaintive fundraising appeal to his supporters warning that his group is nearly out of money and may soon have to close its doors.
“When we send out these appeals, the response is usually minimal,” Bean said. “I don’t think there are a lot of people in America who understand just how broken the criminal justice system is and how important it is that there are organizations like us standing up for victims of wrongful prosecution and conviction.”
Bean is hopeful that Obama will elevate the importance of civil rights cases in the U.S. Justice Department. And the president-elect has already a signaled an interest in expanding the definition of civil rights to encompass economic as well as racial disparities.
But just in case the new administration were to falter, Sharpton said he’s prepared to stage one of his signature civil rights protests outside the Obama White House.
“I don’t think that would happen, because Obama’s commitment to civil rights is basically there,” Sharpton said. “But if we had to protest, we would. If the issue is accountability on change, that’s where we’ll go.”