Black America's Promised Land: Why I Am Still a Racial Optimist


Black America's Promised Land: Why I Am Still a Racial Optimist

Hope and pessimism have defined two traditions of American thinking about race. Fully acknowledging recent setbacks, the author makes the case for the tradition of hope.

November 10, 2014

This article appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.

Not so long ago, black Americans were giddy witnesses to what many regarded as a miracle. Election night, November 4, 2008, seemed to be a millennial turning point as a majority of Americans entrusted an African American with the nation’s highest office and greatest powers. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” Barack Obama declared, “… tonight is your answer.” Against the backdrop of that high, a downturn was inevitable. But what many blacks are feeling now is more than a correction; it is depression.

The racial front is the site of especially keen disappointment. In a 2013 survey pegged to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the Pew Research Center found that less than half (45 percent) of all Americans agreed that the country had made “a lot” of progress toward racial equality during the previous half-century. Among blacks, only 32 percent shared the same view. That dourness stems in part from persistent hard times. The economic meltdown that accompanied Obama to the White House (and probably played a major role in his initial election) devastated the earnings and assets of black Americans. Since his election, they have not recouped their losses in what has only been a tepid recovery tipped in favor of the haves. Adding to the unhappiness is anger at the recalcitrance Obama has faced since the outset of his administration, a resistance mainly from Republicans that many observers believe is substantially fueled by racism.

Pew Research Center

Notes: Based on full sample, N=2,231. Blacks and whites include only non-Hispanics. Hispanics may be of any race.

Source: Pew Research Center Race Survey, conducted August 1-11, 2013. 

Slumping morale among blacks, however, is attributable to more than frustration with Obama’s enemies; it also reflects frustration with the president himself. Although the overwhelming majority of politically active blacks supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 and continue to rally behind him defensively, an appreciable number feel let down. They maintain that he has been altogether too fearful of being charged with racial favoritism and has done too little to educate the public about the peculiar racial hazards that African Americans routinely face.

Beneath the malaise is a deep current of racial pessimism that has a long history in American and African American thought. Pessimists believe that racial harmony predicated on fairness is not part of the American future. They posit that the United States will not overcome its tragic racial past. They maintain that blacks are not and cannot become members of the American family (even with a black family occupying the White House). They believe that the United States is a white nation that will always be governed on behalf of white folk.

For pessimists, the Obama presidency is no sign of racial transcendence; to the contrary, it is a demonstration of the intractability of American pigmentocracy. For them, the Obama ascendancy shows that in order to rise to the top of American politics, a black politician must be willing to forgo substantively challenging the racial status quo (though he is allowed to cavil about it rhetorically). For them, the Obama administration simply mirrors the racial diversification of an existing order in which a relatively small sector of upper-crust blacks prosper while the condition of the black masses stagnates or deteriorates—the consequence of a misbegotten theory of racial trickle-down. For them, the Obama era is littered with bitter incongruity: While a black man is commander-in-chief, Michael Brown and thousands like him are stalked, harassed, brutalized, and occasionally killed in Ferguson-like locales across America.

The pedigree of black racial pessimism is impressive. In its ranks one finds such figures as Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Randall Robinson, and the extraordinary W.E.B. Du Bois. One encounters Frederick Douglass declaring in 1847, “I cannot have any love for this country … or for its Constitution. I desire to see its overthrow as speedily as possible, and its Constitution shriveled in a thousand fragments.” In that tradition, one also finds Derrick Bell, professor of law at Harvard, teaching in the 1990s that the United States is irredeemably imprisoned by its past, that “racism is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society,” and that “black people will never gain full equality in this country.”

Garvey, Muhammad, Du Bois, Malcolm X: Library of Congress; Bell: David Shankbone

THE PESSIMISTS: Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Randall Robinson, and Derrick Bell

The tradition of black racial pessimism has its white counterpart. According to Thomas Jefferson, “The two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” Alexis de Tocqueville doubted that “the white and black races will ever live in any country upon an equal footing,” but believed “the difficulty to be still greater in the United States than elsewhere.” According to Abraham Lincoln, differences between blacks and whites “will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”

But the pessimists, black and white, have not been the only influence on American thought about the prospects for racial progress. Arrayed against them are optimists who contend that blacks are (or can become) members of the American family and insist that racial harmony bottomed on fairness is attainable. This, in fact, has been the predominant tradition among blacks. Its adherents include Booker T. Washington, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis (joined by whites such as the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton). The most memorable spokesman for the optimistic tradition was Martin Luther King Jr. On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated, he told his followers to take heart because he knew that, eventually, they would overcome the obstacles they faced. He knew this because he had “been to the mountaintop” and glimpsed the Promised Land, though he might not make it there himself.

King was vague, however, about the Promised Land’s boundaries and topography. He had famously spoken of a nation where individuals will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Yet that formulation is popular partly because it is open to contending interpretations. Is it a condemnation of all racial distinctions? Or is it a condemnation only of invidious racial distinctions? Is it meant to posit a rule of non-discrimination that should go into effect immediately even at the cost of barring efforts to rectify past racial wrongdoing? Or is it meant to posit a rule of nondiscrimination that should go into effect only after the consequences of past wrongdoings have been ameliorated?

Bethune, Marshall, Wilkins, Jackson, King: Library of Congress

THE OPTIMISTS: Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama 

These questions underlie the debate that has been raging for decades over competing conceptions of the racial Promised Land. In one conception, the Promised Land is a society henceforth substantially free of intentional racial discrimination in major domains of the public sphere. In this society, no effort is made to rectify the oppressive consequences of past racial misconduct because, it is argued, trying to do so is futile, unfair to those innocent of past wrongdoing, and conducive to the perpetuation of race-mindedness. This view has been propounded vigorously in the legal writings of Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, mainly in critiques of affirmative action. Chief Justice John Roberts, also a champion of this view, expressed it epigrammatically when, abjuring a race-conscious plan for school integration, he quipped that the best way to stop racial discrimination is to stop racially discriminating—no matter whether the aim is to assist or oppress a vulnerable group. Under this conception, we enter the racial Promised Land when racial discrimination is a negligible feature of social life, even if the vestiges of racial subordination in the past are evident and consequential. Let’s call this model of racial justice the conservative conception of the racial Promised Land.

The progressive conception of the racial Promised Land is more ambitious. It envisions two essential landmarks. The first is the requirement of the conservatives that invidious racial discrimination be reduced to a negligible influence. The second condition is that the vestiges of past discrimination—the racial gaps that so dramatically scar the social landscape—be erased. Pursuant to the progressive perspective, we will reach the racial Promised Land when blackness is no longer a uniform that, holding other variables steady, signals that its wearer bears a notably higher risk than whites of premature death, impoverishment, unemployment, incarceration, victimization by criminality, homelessness, police harassment, and similar afflictions. Today, one can go into a hospital, visit the ward for newborns, and make accurate estimates about the babies’ varying life trajectories on the basis of their racial identities. When accurate estimates of this sort are no longer possible, progressives contend, we will have reached the racial Promised Land.

Some observers insist that what I have dubbed the conservative model of the racial Promised Land is at hand or at least nearby. They maintain that, for the most part, we have overcome. They proclaim “Mission Accomplished” or at least mission near-accomplished.

This is mistaken. Intentional invidious racial discrimination constitutes a force in American life that is far from negligible. It is a substantial headwind that blacks and other racial minorities face in many key areas, including housing, finance, employment, criminal justice, electoral politics, and markets for romance and marriage. There is a library of empirical literature establishing this fact beyond sensible controversy—studies based on similarly situated but racially disparate testers who meet different fates when they seek to buy automobiles, rent housing, get jobs, or obtain loans. And then there are the lessons of everyday life that suggest forcefully that in crucial interactions with police officers, prosecutors, judges, and other authorities armed with discretion, outcomes differ, all too often, depending on the race of the person being assessed. It is difficult to imagine that the dismal train of events surrounding the deaths of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown would have been identical had they been white.

Even more distant is the progressive conception of the racial Promised Land. In practically every key index of well-being, a chasm separates the circumstances in which whites and blacks typically find themselves. The income gap separating blacks and whites widened from about $19,000 in the late 1960s to about $27,000 in 2011. The wealth gap increased from $75,000 in 1984 to $85,000 in 2011. Blacks are nearly three times more likely to live in deep poverty than whites. Black men are six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated. And on. And on. And on.

We have failed to reach the racial Promised Land in either its conservative or its progressive definition. With respect to both of these destinations, our society remains far afield. Still, I put myself in the optimistic camp.


I am hopeful first and foremost because of the predominant trajectory of African Americans—a history that John Hope Franklin framed with the apt title From Slavery to Freedom. In 1860, four million African Americans were enslaved while another half-million were free but devoid of fundamental rights in many of the jurisdictions where they lived. In 1860, the very term “African American” was something of an oxymoron because the Supreme Court had ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that no black, free or enslaved, could be a citizen of the United States. But within a decade, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) established birthright citizenship and required all states to accord all persons due process and equal protection of the laws, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited states from withholding the right to vote on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. People who had been sold on the auction block as youngsters helped to govern their locales as public officials when they were adults. In 1861, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi resigned from the United States Senate to join the Confederate States of America, which he led as president. In 1870, Hiram Revels, the first black member of Congress, occupied the seat that Davis abandoned.

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Duane Merrells walks with an upside down flag in a protest Monday, August 18, 2014, for the killing of Michael Brown, who was shot by police August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown's shooting in the middle of a street sparked a more than week of protests in the St. Louis suburb.

The First Reconstruction was overwhelmed by a devastating white supremacist reaction. But the most fundamental reforms it established proved resilient, providing the basis for a Second Reconstruction from the 1950s to the 1970s. During that period, too, the distance traveled by blacks was astonishing. In 1950, segregation was deemed to be consistent with federal constitutional equal protection. No federal law prevented proprietors of hotels, restaurants, and other privately owned public accommodations from engaging in racial discrimination. No federal law prohibited private employers from discriminating on a racial basis against applicants for jobs or current employees. No federal law effectively counteracted racial disenfranchisement. No federal law outlawed racial discrimination in private housing transactions. In contrast, by 1970 federal constitutional law thoroughly repudiated the lie of separate but equal. The 1964 Civil Rights Act forbade racial discrimination in privately owned places of public accommodation and many areas of private employment. The 1965 Voting Rights Act provided the basis for strong prophylactic action against racial exclusion at the ballot box. The 1968 Fair Housing Act addressed racial exclusion in a market that had been zealously insulated against federal regulation. None of these interventions were wholly successful. All were compromised. All occasioned backlash. But the racial situation in 1970 and afterwards was dramatically better than what it had been in 1950 and before.

O.J. Rapp/Library of Congress, courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, Austin, Texas

President Lyndon B. Johnson speaks to the nation before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, July 2, 1964.

Today, at a moment when progress has stalled, we need to recall how dramatically and unexpectedly conditions sometimes change. Until recently who’d-a thunk it possible for the president to be an African American? In the 1980s, I used to ask law students how long affirmative action programs ought to last. Champions of such programs, seeking to ensure their longevity, would say that affirmative action would be needed until the country elected a black president. That reply would elicit appreciative laughter as listeners supposed that that formula would preserve affirmative action for at least a century. But then along came Barack Obama and with him the remark that soon became a cliché: “I never thought that I’d live to see a black president.”

Obama’s election is much more than a monument to one politician’s talent and good fortune. Changes in public attitudes, law, and custom have clearly elevated the fortunes of African Americans as individuals and black America as a collectivity. Hard facts may give plausibility to the pessimistic tradition, but they make the optimistic tradition compelling. Despite the many wrongs that remain to be righted, blacks in America confront fewer racist impediments now than ever before in the history of the United States. The courage, intelligence, persistence, idealism, and sacrifice of Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks, Julian Bond and Bob Moses, Medgar Evers and Bayard Rustin, Viola Liuzzo and Vernon Dahmer—and countless other tribunes for racial justice—have not been expended for naught. The facts of day-to-day life allow blacks to sing more confidently than ever before James Weldon Johnson’s magnificent hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past
     has taught us

Sing a song full of the hope that the present
     has brought us

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun

Let us march on till victory is won.

My optimism involves more than a sociological prediction. I am also swayed by my intuition regarding which of these hypotheses—the pessimistic or the optimistic—will do the most good. Hope is a vital nutrient for effort; without it, there is no prospect for achievement. The belief that we can overcome makes more realistic the possibility that we shall overcome. Optimism gives buoyancy to thinking that might otherwise degenerate into nihilism, encourages solidarity in those who might otherwise be satisfied by purely selfish indulgence, invites strategic planning that can usefully harness what might otherwise be impotent indignation, and inspires efforts that might otherwise be avoided due to fatalism.

On Election Day 1996, exit polling showed General Colin Powell beating President Bill Clinton by a comfortable margin. But Powell was not Clinton’s opponent. Senator Bob Dole was. Powell had considered seeking the Republican Party nomination but declined in the end to do so. Before he made that decision, polls suggested that he could win the nomination and the general election, but friends were skeptical. Powell recalls that Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, told him, “Look, man … [w]hen [white voters] go in that booth, they ain’t going to vote for you.” Maybe Graves was correct. Real voting might have produced different results from the polls. Furthermore, whereas the actual candidates had suffered a year of merciless scrutiny on the campaign trail, Powell on Election Day was a mere hypothetical candidate who suffered from none of the wear and tear that a presidential contest exacts. At the end of a campaign, the general might not have remained so attractive. Still, Powell’s apparent popularity does provide a basis for conjecturing that America’s readiness to elect a black president had been an unrecognized part of the political landscape for longer than many had appreciated. Powell may well have denied himself the opportunity to make a successful historic leap by being self-defeatingly pessimistic.

A major fear of many blacks is that acknowledging progress will prompt underestimation of racial obstacles that blacks at every socioeconomic level continue to face. When Americans are polled about their perceptions of racial affairs, whites are typically more upbeat than blacks. The more affluent they are, the more upbeat white observers tend to be. Inordinately impressed by progress, they all too often prematurely declare victory over racism.

Although complacency nourished by an overly rosy view of racial affairs is a real danger, I stand by my conviction that a clear-eyed assessment favors black optimism. Who, after all, have been the figures most beneficial to blacks? Was it the Martin Delany who decamped for Africa, thinking America to be irremediably racist? Or was it the Martin Delany who returned, recruited blacks for the Union, and participated significantly in Southern politics during Reconstruction? Was it the pre-1966 Stokely Carmichael who sang “We Shall Overcome” in the splendid early days of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)? Or was it the post-1966 Stokely Carmichael (later renamed Kwame Ture) whose impatient bitterness helped to destroy the SNCC and rationalize an indulgent exile to Guinea that squandered a substantial talent? Was it my long-time colleague of blessed memory, Derrick Bell, who posited the permanence of racist white dominance? Or was it a student who rightly admired Professor Bell but eschewed his pessimism and followed a different path, a black student who, years later, put Bell’s hypothesis to a test by seeking the highest elected office in the land under the slogan “Yes We Can!”?

WGBH - video screen shot

A young Barack Obama introduces Professor
Derrick Bell at a 1991 demonstration for
diversity at Harvard Law School. 

That student, of course, was Barack Obama, and his presidency has been the setting for much debate between pessimists and optimists. Some detractors, perhaps the angriest, started from a position of raised expectations. They thought that Obama embodied the “audacity of hope” and that he would somehow bring about sweeping changes. Disappointed, they have expressed themselves in the angry, accusatory rhetoric of betrayal. Obama, Cornel West charges, “posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit.” Others condemn Obama but without disappointment. They see their low expectations as having been validated.

Certain pessimists have maintained that Obama’s election indicated little in terms of “real” racial progress. They even discount the symbolic significance of his ascendancy, stressing his exceptionality. Although he calls himself black, Obama is the offspring of a black African father and a white American mother and is thus distinguished genealogically from most African Americans. Much was made of his Muslim-sounding name. But some observers maintain that popular acceptance of that, too, should be viewed skeptically. It would have signaled more, they argue, had America elected a black person raised in, say, Detroit with a name such as Tyrone Washington or Jamal Jefferson. Pessimists argue that, substantively, the Obama presidency has delivered no more to blacks than would have been delivered by any other centrist-liberal Democrat (say, Hillary Clinton), and that in certain respects the Obama presidency delivered less because Obama sought excessively to prove that he was a president for all Americans and not merely black Americans. They contend that Obama’s blackness was an asset that he used for personal marketing and that the white establishment seized upon for advertising, “The United States cannot sensibly be accused of practicing or condoning racism! It just elected a black president!” Pessimists will now also enlist the horrifying events in Ferguson, Missouri, to reinforce their claim that despite the civil rights movement, antidiscrimination legislation, affirmative action, and the election of Obama, the narrative of race relations in America is a doleful tale—not a march upward from slavery to freedom, but a trek sideways from plantation to ghetto.

(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome President Hu Jintao of China at the North Portico of the White House for the State Dinner, January 19, 2011.

What is an optimist in the waning years of the Obama presidency to say in the face of this challenge?

Obama’s election signaled a dramatic, substantive change in racial beliefs and attitudes. In 1960, his victory would have been impossible: Too many whites would have been unwilling to vote for a black candidate—any black candidate—because of doubts about the capacities of anyone of black African ancestry. Recall that there were no black cabinet officers until Johnson appointed Robert Weaver as secretary of housing and urban development in 1966, and no black Supreme Court justices until Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall in 1967. The specter of black intellectual and characterological deficiency stunted the careers of many talented blacks, and still does. That Obama was able to win the presidency—twice—is a sign that rumors of racial inferiority, while still extant, are much diminished in influence.

In thinking about the meaning of Obama, it is important, too, to focus on the special status of the presidency. The person who occupies that office is not only the head of the executive branch of the federal government, the person who nominates all federal judges, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and thus a person with the wherewithal to destroy most, if not all, of humankind. The president is also the nation’s mourner-in-chief, booster-in-chief, spouse-in-chief, and parent-in-chief. That a black man has been the master of the White House for the past six years does indeed reflect and reinforce a remarkable socio-psychological transformation in the American racial scene. If that is “tokenism,” give us more of it.

I have emphasized progress that blacks have made in absolute terms: where they stood 50 years ago and where they stand today. But what about the position of blacks relative to whites—those yawning gaps in wealth, income, educational attainment, and risk of imprisonment that have remained unclosed and that have, in some ways, widened even further during Obama’s tenure? There is no use denying that reality. America remains racially stratified and will continue to be long after the Obama presidency.

There is also no use, however, in denying other facets of the American racial reality. One is a comparative view. In considering the appropriate attitude to adopt toward America—allegiance, for example, or dis-affiliation—it is sensible to compare the United States to other divided societies. Negrophobia in America is, alas, all too present. But it pales in comparison with the prejudice against racial, ethnic, religious, and national minorities in many countries around the globe. As bad as the American racial problem is, as urgently as it calls for concentrated attention, its condition is less dire and more encouraging than might be gleaned from an analysis that views the American situation in isolation, divorced from international comparisons.

There is also no good purpose served by ignoring manifestations of progress that display themselves even in heartrending crises. Consider the events in Ferguson. The killing of the unarmed teenager, the callous inattentiveness to his body, the militarized police response to protest, and the dubious investigation by local authorities of this tragic death display much of what is terrible in American race relations: an atavistic fear of young black men; quick resort to excessive force against African Americans; racial residential separation; black powerlessness that foments resentment; white dominance that encourages contempt; an utter lack of mutual trust. But the events in Ferguson have also revealed other responses. The federal government took note of what happened and actively involved itself via the president, attorney general, and the director of the FBI. The Ferguson tragedy became the leading news story all over the country. Blacks have not been the only ones calling the police to account and demanding reform. Whites from various walks of life, including right-wing politicians like Rand Paul, have also been doing so. Never in American history, in analogous circumstances, has there been a higher level of interracial empathy.

Overcoming the racial burdens—individual, communal, institutional—that encumber us will take unremitting effort, major deployments of intelligence and imagination, daunting amounts of time, huge expenditures of money, and the resolute conviction that America’s racial affairs can and will improve. Is the uncertain prospect of a better future worth that investment? The lessons of American history and a comparison of our society with others around the world impel me to say yes. I am a racial optimist. Only time will tell whether my faith is wise.

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