For the past four years, we have remained silent; some have been satisfied that Obama being the first black president was reason enough to seal our lips and muffle our voices. But most were convinced that, once he entered his second term, Obama would be liberated from the racial harness that politics forced him to wear.
During this period of self-imposed silence, we have watched our criminal laws become racialized and our race criminalized. Blacks continue to be faced with punishing unfairness and inequalities. Soaring rates of unemployment, discriminatory drug laws, disproportionate prison sentences, unequal access to health care and healthy food, unfair stop-and-frisk policies and “accidental” shootings of unarmed black men by the police — these and more are treated with indifference or contempt. We’re told to stop complaining, to get over it. No one cares.
But that’s just the point of living in the United States. Somebody is supposed to care. Our elected officials, beginning with the president, are charged with the responsibility of listening to the needs, the grievances, the voices of the people — including people of color.
It’s the reason why every black leader from Frederick Douglass to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have urged us to speak up, agitate, march, brave the beatings from fire hoses, bull whips and dogs, to touch the conscience of the American people with the righteousness of our demands for equal opportunity and justice.
It is my hope that Obama will do what Nelson Mandela did when he was forced to stand trial before an Afrikaner court for the crime of fighting for freedom. He wore his tribal kaross as his coat of arms and his blackness as his badge of honor. And when he was liberated from prison, “Madiba” spoke out — not for revenge or retribution, but for justice, for the need to seek truth and reconciliation. Mandela will forever stand tall in the world’s hall of heroes because he remained unbent and unbroken before his adversaries. But he will be especially revered for his courage in asking his nation to face the truth of its past.