This Tuesday, the day after the national observance of the Martin Luther King holiday, Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American, will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America making him the most powerful man in the world.
I am not someone who is overly pessimistic and believes that the election of Obama means nothing in terms of race-relations. The election of Obama is a sign of the progress in race relations that have been made in America and if you do not believe that just try and imagine an African-American 40 years ago, when half of America was segregated and the other half semi-segregated, even coming close to winning he office of the presidency no matter how qualified they were or how much they sold out.
However, I think that the talk of many in the media, the “netroots”, the young and idealists, conservatives, and liberal activists about the election of Obama making way for a post-racial America is absurd. It should come as no surprise that most of these people are making this argument are white ( or at least not black) and would like to absolve themselves from any racial introspection.
Obama will be inaugurated on Tuesday and hundreds of millions will be watching the event. In St. Louis there are going to be parties thrown all over town especially in the African-American community.
But, when we all wake up in Wednesday, we will still be waking up in a very segregated city. The vast majority of whites will not venture north of Delmar and there are many neighborhoods in St. Louis where African-Americans will still not feel safe after dark. Having a black man in the Oval Office will not change that.
Recently I had an older man in my cab that I guessed to be around 75. I was taking him from the trendy upscale urban neighborhood of the Central West End to the airport where he was catching a flight to Florida. I decided to take him straight up North Kingshighway to Highway 70 which at that time of the morning is the quickest way to the airport.
The man, who lives just blocks from the boundaries of North St. Louis, told me he had not driven through the North Side in at least 20 years and everything looked strange to him. There was a new streetscape, new stores, and new restaurants. The neighborhood we drove through is virtually 100% black and this was a white man.
He told me that he had grown up in North St. Louis in an all-white neighborhood and attended the old Central High School. As whites moved farther North into the city and to the northern suburbs and were being replaced by blacks most whites left the North Side and forgot about it. I can tell you from personal experience that most white people in my cab, even the urbanist yuppies, are terrified to ride though the North Side even if it is the quickest way to get somewhere or has the closets fast-food joint they are looking for.
A few days later I picked up a man from a bar downtown and he told me he had to go to St. Charles Rock Road and 2-70. I asked him if he wanted me to take the highway or drive straight out and he told me to do whatever one I preferred. So, I got on Dr. Martin Luther King and drove straight out.
As we left downtown and drove through historical black neighborhoods that had sustained the black middle-class that had turned into ghettos since de-segregation my passenger got an eyeful. Later we passed murals that artists had painted of local black leaders and other inspirational art mixed in with vacant buildings and street prostitution.
The man was fascinated. He spoke to me as if I was taking him through some exotic city in Brazil or Africa or something and not driving through a city he said he was born and raised in. Not only had he not seen anything I was showing him; but he had no clue it existed.
Finally, as we were approaching the city limits he asked me what Dr. Martin Luther King turned into and I told him once you get into St. Louis County it turns into St. Charles Rock Road. His response was pure astonishment. He lived off the Rock Road and never even knew it went into the City.
The further out you go on the Rock Road the nicer it gets as a rule and it turns into lesser ghettos in places like Pagedale to working and more middle class black areas like Hanley Hills to racially and economically mixed places like St. Ann until eventually you get to Bridgeton which is a pretty sold middle-class area where he lived.
Now, I ask you, once Obama is inaugurated will these two men venture outside of their areas more often? I highly doubt it. And, this is not just about St. Louis. You could tell this same story of virtually every major city in America (and no, I do not believe urbanism and gentrification is a solution to this). That is why when we wake up in America on Wednesday we will still be a divided, yet increasingly diverse, nation.