Now that the inauguration is out of the way we can get back to reality, free from the burden of noting the historical moment of Obama’s presidency.  Yes, it is exciting that a person of mixed race is president- yes it will continue to feel exciting for some time even.  Almost equally exciting is the mere fact that we’ve survived the Bush presidency (many, many haven’t- though at times it seemed like even fewer would).  As I watched the inauguration on television, his nervousness and the grandeur of all that was happening was so thick I felt it myself.  He seemed humbled and awestruck, as he should, and determined and confident, as he should.  My opinions or disagreements or beliefs- nor anyone else’s- take away nothing from the historical magnitude, on a multitude of fronts, from the fact of Barack Obama’s inauguration (yet another poison arrow for the conclusions of post-modernists).

If we hadn’t before, we have now heard perhaps several accounts of the fight of the civil rights movement, the realities of segregation, and the horrors of institutionalized racism.  Many are powerful, bewildering, and heartbreaking.  Almost all of them have been dug out in recent days and weeks and months to help illustrate the nearly unthinkable reality of Obama’s presidency (although then there’s Dr King in 1964 predicting a “negro president in less than 40 years”– pretty close prediction, really).  None of these stories should be forgotten.

At the same time, these stories aren’t done being told.  Racism is alive and well and not just in the dark corners of the rural South.  Though the form of institutional racism as seen in segregation and Jim Crow are off the books, it’s still very much a part of the economic and social realities of this country.  For instance, the county that I grew up in was extremely wealthy and very white, except for three bigger cities which had a mixed race population and were largely devoted to middle and working class  households, and ghettos.  I grew-up in one of these cities, where at my high school a quarter of the student body doesn’t speak English at home, half of the students are racial minorities, and over one in ten are on school-sponsored meal assistance.  Also at my high school, a system is used for tracking students into classes which were for “college bound”, “average, maybe community college bound” and “lets just try to get this kid to pass high school with whatever diploma we can give ’em”.  Not only were these tracks- which, academically speaking, there could be a good argument made that such division by skill-level is to everyone’s benefit- clear divisions based on race, but more so, based on class.  There were few, very few, kids in the lowest level of tract who were white or not living in poverty conditions; there were also a disproportionate number of whites (compared with their overall make-up of the student body) in the “college bound” tract and though not made up only of kids from better means, all the kids whose family’s had more wealth were in this group.

In effect, though my high school was made-up of 2,000 kids from a very diverse array of racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, classes were largely divided by wealthier whites and impoverished colored people.  It’s a more subtle institutionalized racism, because exceptions were common and no signs read “this classroom for whites only”- but if lived in a certain part of town, you were immediately placed in one track or another.  I, for instance, was placed in the “college bound” classes and had to literally fight my way out to the middle level track (because I was entirely disinterested in the heavier work load of the upper level classes- my high school brain said “I can do less work and get through high school? well, OK, that sounds good”).  I also really enjoyed the “tech ed” classes- electronics, auto mechanics, woodworking, graphic arts (which back then didn’t involve computers but old-styled printing and photo development) and in this wing of the campus (obligatory shout out here to the E House crew!)- oddly separated from the rest of the building by a long, long hallway which always gave one the feeling they were somehow abut the run in to Freddy Cougar- about 80% of the students were black.

And none of that is going to change because of who’s in the White House.

Of all the ways that racism exhibits itself, perhaps the above example seems far less than the horrors of the blood that has been spilled.  Perhaps by the generality of these things rather than the directness of “whites only” signs we don’t even see what’s wrong with these facts- perhaps we could even point to the fact that there is opportunity- there are colored people in those “college bound” classes, there are working class and even impoverished kids- this is a positive, it is progress from where we’ve come.  True for sure, but is still not justice.  It is still not equality.  And because of that, there is not freedom.  There’s plenty to be hopeful for with Barack Obama as president, but there is also plenty to detest about the reality of life in the United States.  Racism, and more directly, classism, is alive and well and very much institutionalized, and it doesn’t feel any better because “a black man” is president.

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