Last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the nation's celebration was inevitably linked to the election of Barack Obama, who would be sworn in as the nation's president the next day. The moment was cast as one of King's dreams fulfilled: A black American had been elected president roughly a half-century after many blacks had been denied the right to vote. Some analysts speculated America had become "postracial." Of course, the country continues to wrestle with race. But Obama's tenure remains a useful barometer, both for realizing progress and work left undone.
Obama has resisted being defined by race, often to the great frustration of many who believe he should do more to advance minority causes. But it's a testament to the country's progress and his own appeal across different races that the greatest challenge he faces in pushing his agenda is largely a partisan divide — not an overtly racial one.
To be sure, Obama's tenure has not been without racial incident — from a provocative speech by Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging Americans to talk frankly about race to Obama's clumsy reaction when a white police officer arrested a black Harvard professor in his own home. Then this month, a new book revealed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2008 suggested Obama's light complexion and lack of a "Negro dialect" meant he was a black politician most Americans could embrace. The use of such outdated language provoked a predictable backlash.
Minorities, as a group, still struggle to fully realize the American dream, including its economic offerings, from good-paying jobs to education. And black Americans, in particular, are vastly overrepresented in our prisons.
That is where Obama may yet make his biggest contribution in creating more opportunities for blacks and other minorities. His Race to the Top competition is aimed at closing the achievement gap between white and minority public school students. Success — insuring that more minorities overall leave school as well prepared as white classmates — could rewrite the economic profiles of the nation's minority communities. It would improve minorities' employment options and help lessen income and incarceration disparities. That is the ultimate prize, and today the country should recommit itself to reach for it.
But the country should also celebrate how far it has come since King's campaign for civil rights rewrote history. A recent survey by Pew Research Center of more than 2,800 adult Americans, roughly 800 of whom were black, found that an overwhelming majority of blacks (60 percent) join whites (70 percent) in believing the two groups have grown more similar in values and living standards in the past decade. And blacks, as a group, are more optimistic about their future in America than just two years ago. That, too, is progress.