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Perspectives: Watch Night — Then and Now

It is impossible to describe the depth and range of emotions that slaves experienced on Watch Night as they waited for the minute they would be free. 

Similarly, we can’t account fully for what the descendants of the slaves and others experienced centuries later when they watched the November 4, 2008 declaration of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. To be sure, Obama’s election is a watershed moment with untold ramifications. To be equally sure, however, there is a need for great caution regarding where we are at this moment in our nation’s racial history, particularly when it comes to the contemporary rhetoric related to a “post-racial” America. 

It is nearly fashionable to read stories that quote African-Americans who claimed within recent days of Obama’s election that they were now “Americans,” that they need not identify as of Nov. 4, 2008 as “African-Americans,” but as “Americans.” Some maintain that the old civil rights veterans may well have been put out of business since African-Americans can no longer claim to be prisoners of their race. 

In a Nov. 9, 2008 Washington Post article, Jonetta Rose Barras offered, “African-Americans have just entered the no-excuses zone. We finally have one of our own in the White House. With Barack Obama’s ascension to the highest office in the United States, most African-Americans feel that we arrived as fully equal citizens … .”

I believe it is misguided to overly focus on what Obama’s election will singularly mean for American race relations or the most appropriate ways to address current racial circumstances. Rather, we should be mindful that, after the first glorious Watch Night, “freedom” was followed by centuries of bombings, rapes, lynching, Jim Crow, legal segregation, institutional racism, de jure segregation, and, to this day, the euphemism some call structural poverty.

Hence, following Watch Night 2008, we cannot permit the singular success of our president-elect to blind us to the collective racial disparities existing in education, employment, housing, health, the criminal justice system, and essentially every relevant social index. Rather, we must work just as hard, if not harder than Obama did, to realize success in other sectors of American life. In saying this however, I by no means suggest that African-Americans must engage in the mythical “lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps.” 

With corporate giants lining up to feed from the multi-billion dollar public dole, it is not “socialism” to suggest that “no child left behind” should be fully funded or that failing public schools too should be rescued from such horrors as 25 percent graduation rates. 

If billions can soon be provided to rescue the American auto giants, why not also provide billions to help those without health benefits?  Lest we keep our eyes on the real prizes and hands on the true plows, it will be several centuries more before African-Americans, as a collective, emerge from the adverse circumstances in which they currently find themselves. 

Regarding higher education, now is the time to develop rescue plans to not only save, but also add to, the stature of historically Black colleges and universities. 

Now is the time for national “think tanks” to articulate and gain acceptance of ways to continue the progress of diversity in higher education. It is at this time that we must find and replicate the best practice paradigms for public education, from pre-school through graduate and professional school. We now need people of good will and sufficient expertise to craft programs for accelerating diversity among those graduating with degrees in quantitatively based disciplines. 

After the January festivities have been concluded, perhaps a fitting thing to do would be to convene a national conference on best practices in higher education diversity. If we fail to put our hands to such plows, the euphoria of this most recent Watch Night will be buried under at least another century of inequality in America.

Jack L. Daniel is a Professor at the University of Pittsburgh.


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