Working for the LCCR this summer as it sought to beat back Ward Connelly's efforts to eliminate affirmative action in Colorado, one of the primary arguments we had to respond to was the claim that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (and later, Sarah Palin) have proven that affirmative action is not necessary. Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, trained her fire more broadly, asking caustically if civil rights advocates are "still going to whine endlessly about racism in America" if Obama was elected. Since Obama's election, this chorus has grown even louder. RedState, for example, congratulated Barack Obama on his victory by saying "thirty years came quickly", referring to the time frame within which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated that she expected affirmative action would no longer be necessary. And liberal commentators have made similar statements, albeit in more worried tones: that Obama's election would wrongly signal White citizens that the problem of racism is essentially over.
Look. Barack Obama's election was an immensely important event, and its symbolic value to the cause of racial justice cannot be overstated. That being said, in terms of its direct impact to the cause of racial equity, it is in fact mostly symbolic. All Barack Obama has objectively proven is that an incredibly talented Black man can rise to an elite position in extremely favorable conditions (as The Onion memorably put it: "Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress"). One very capable person doing very well is good news, but it doesn't make any systematic impact or really tell us anything about the strength of institutional factors. Affirmative action is targeted at the Black community writ large -- most of whom are not Barack Obama's. But you shouldn't have to be a Barack Obama for civil rights to care about you.
The focus on Obama's victory helps to maintain one of the more pernicious elements of the "politics of respectability" model of civil rights reform. During the civil rights struggle, Black leaders were very careful to present only their most cherubic, idealized face. Their most innocent children, their most clearly qualified applicants, their most gifted (and fair-minded) leaders. It would be far more difficult for the wardens of White supremacy to argue that these people should be excluded from the fruits of the American dream. By contrast, civil rights organizations were far more hesitant to stand up for, say, the Black poor (whose mannerisms might be cited as justification for racist measures), or Black criminals who -- regardless of what acts they might have committed -- still objectively ought to enjoy the same protections granted to White defendants. In this way, the measuring stick by which racial equality was measured was when a Black standout was given full opportunity to show the extent of her genius.
Most Black people, like most Whites, Asians, and Latinos, are not perfect. They are regular, flawed folks. And when "success" in civil rights is limited to elite persons getting their just deserts, we do serious violence to what racial equality should actually mean. Much of the focus on affirmative action is an upshot of the politics of respectability -- it asks what awards should be given to very talented Black men and women. I think that's important, but the totality of racial equality isn't encompassed by the question of whether a given Black student should be going to Harvard versus Tufts. Barack Obama's election may tell us important information about the prospects of the "talented tenth" (or hundredth, or thousandth). But true commitment to racial egalitarianism means looking beyond that, to the situation of the normal ninetieth. That includes the vast majority of college students, who are not elite either, but it is also extends to the many people who aren't going to college at all. Affirmative action still has a role to play in the post-Obama era, but the focus on it as the primary battleground over civil rights obscures more than it illuminates.
There is an old saw in feminist circles stating that "the issue now is not to get a female Einstein hired as an assistant professor at a third-rate university. The issue now is to have a female schlub receive the same opportunities as a male schlub." The same thing applies in the context of race. We have made it so that there are avenues for the very best and brightest people of color can spread their wings and succeed. And that's not nothing. But neither is it the end of civil rights. For everyday Black folk, Barack Obama's election does not signal any meaningful change in the type of opportunities they are likely to see or the type of treatment they are likely to receive. Waving their lives away, because of what a very tiny and very separate stratum of Black people now know that they can achieve, is not legitimate practice for those of us truly committed to dismantling racial hierarchy.