Every February in both Canada and the United States, we celebrate Black History Month. Originally a one-week affair in the second week of February to celebrate the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, it is now a month-long series of festivities and activities to commemorate the contribution of African Americans and Black Canadians to North American society. This year, the celebrations coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
While serious issues and problems affecting African American communities remain, Barack Obama has just been reelected for a second term as president of the United States—not a small accomplishment. For those of us who cringe at the subtle and not so subtle racial overtones in the attacks against Obama (the birther issue is an illustration), we should take comfort in the fact that Obama is the first president since 1956 to receive more than 51 percent of the popular vote twice, and his party received over 1 million more votes than the Republicans in the congressional elections. Moreover, no one can deny the progress made in racial equality in the past few decades, especially since the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
Already, some historians are questioning whether the progress of African Americans remains fundamentally cosmetic with Obama in the White House. After all, unemployment within black communities is way above the national average, poverty is at record levels, and gun violence is still at epidemic proportions. Yet, Obama carried the vote among African Americans at the level of 94 percent. Are African Americans just voting for one of their own and giving Obama a pass in terms of gains for their communities?