This may be the toughest thing to accept about racial progress: When you climb one mountain, it usually leads to a mountain range.
In other words, any significant progress reveals — at least, to some — how far you have to go. And that's the steadily shifting ground actor/filmmaker Mario Van Peebles covers in his new documentary Fair Game? — a film exploring the notion of whether the post-racial America envisioned by some pundits after President Barack Obama's election exists.
"Every day, I had a seminar with (Princeton University professor) Cornel West, Ice Cube or Jamie Foxx taking me to school," said Van Peebles, who spent years talking to black men ranging from ex-convicts to Chris Rock on the issue.
"When Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in baseball, it didn't mean baseball was an integrated sport," he added. "(Saying so) sort of blurs the line between personal responsibility and social responsibility. I have a personal responsibility … to take care of my kids. But if your school is (so deprived) you can get all A's and not be ready for college, that's a social issue."
Because Van Peebles spent years developing the movie, it unfortunately covers some issues we've already seen explode into the mainstream. As foes of the president's health care initiatives shouted racial epithets and waved signs with awful race-based caricatures, Americans learned quickly some people will always feel threatened by the ascension of people of color.
But what has surprised about Obama's tenure is how little America's first black president can address the issue himself.
It took former President Jimmy Carter to speak boldly about the racist rhetoric employed by some. And commentator/PBS show host Tavis Smiley has criticized Obama for not championing initiatives specifically focused on helping struggling black people.
But even speaking out on the unorthodox arrest of friend and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, who is black, by a white police officer brought accusations of racism. So can a black president charged with leading a diverse nation afford to directly confront these issues?
These days, Obama seems caught in a dynamic the Washington Post's Shankar Vedentam wrote about way back in 2008 — quoting a Yale University study showing white people tend to measure racial equality by comparing progress from the past, while black people measure racial equality by comparing progress needed to reach future goals.
Van Peebles' film is a crystallization of the latter view, citing studies that show white job applicants with criminal records have a better chance of getting job offers than black applicants with clean histories, and noting the way prison inmates, who are disproportionately black, are sometimes used as cheap labor by for-profit prison systems.
Comic Chris Rock sums up the point: "Exceptional black people have always kind of been rewarded. Martin Luther King's dream coming true is for mediocre black people to live and succeed in this world the same way that mediocre white people do."
Critics can note that Van Peebles' film doesn't feature any high-profile black conservatives who might challenge the documentary's notion that America's game isn't quite yet fair.
And Van Peebles acknowledges Obama's ascension has inspired many, even while encouraging some to downplay racial issues. "Having a super bright, wonderful, exceptional African-American family in the White House … was nothing short of a bloodless revolution," he said. "I'm just hoping it's a game changer in the long term … Because the legacy needs to continue."
Fair Game? airs at 6:30 tonight on the TV One cable channel.