Sunday, January 18, 2009

Inauguration - Kennedy to Obama Racial Progress

As John F. Kennedy stood on his inauguration podium, watching the parade march past, he gestured to an aide and pointed out an interesting fact - there were no black faces in the military honor guard.

Kennedy soon ordered the integration of his honor guard, and South Carolina native David Addison, an enlisted Marine who was a grandchild of slaves who had worked on a plantation on the Gullah Island of St. John, became the first African American member of the honor guard, as Kennedy closed the loop from symbol to solution.

Sometimes blatant symbolism is the right kindling to turn smoldering discontent into the flicker of change. According to Roxanne Roberts and Krissah Thompson of The Washington Post, there may be a bit of that at work as President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration looms large on the horizon.

The city's high-level social scene -- dinners, black-tie fundraisers, receptions, ubiquitous book parties -- is the place where money and experience are subtly traded for access and influence.
Except for the first time, the face of ultimate power is African American. With a black first family in the White House and a diverse group of appointees and Cabinet nominees, the all-white dinner party feels all wrong. Certain hosts are suddenly grappling with a new reality: They need some black friends. Overnight, black politicians, lawyers and journalists are hot properties, receiving engraved invitations from people they never got invitations from before.

Imagine that - they need some black friends. There's nothing like a little reality to change the way Washington works.

Obama's message of inclusion, which has caused great celebration (kudos for the diverse Cabinet) and howls of derision (Rev. Rick Warren), should serve as more than a campaign pinata, there for the swatting in hopes that something sweet will fall out. It's clear that like Kennedy, Obama intends to implement the concepts he posited during his long road to the White House, and there will be some very powerful beltway denizens assisting him in the name of their own preservation of relevance.

Those who have heretofore been excluded from the social venues where influence and access often lead to sway on policy matters and job opportunities suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of high-level attention. In a city where black and white work together during the day, often nightly social events were exactly the opposite.

Given how many African Americans there are in the Senate (any guesses?), it's easy to see how they might be overlooked for dinner party invitations. The odds are slightly better in the House, but barely. Suddenly, we're seeing a change in social dynamics that will eventually lead to subtle (or not so subtle) implementation of Obama's mantra of inclusion.

I don't foresee those with money and influence deciding to wait for four years to see how things turn out with the Obama administration. In the arc of politics, a year can seem like a lifetime, and it's unlikely that the gatekeepers will hole up with their remaining Caucasian caucus while plotting the downfall of the new power structure. Quite the opposite - they will follow the time-honored tradition of getting cozy with the new folks in hopes that their points of view will be whispered into the ears of movers and shakers, if for no other reason than to attempt to temper an articulated agenda that is more about being your neighbor's keeper than continued hoarding of wealth and power among a smallish constituency.

Those who opposed the Kennedy ideals of parity and morality when they found voice in speeches and prose watched as he chipped away at unequal treatment from the inside, demonstrating by concrete example that the time for the politics of the past had come to an end. Those examples became the foundation that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Many battles were fought from January 20, 1961, when Kennedy's honor guard observation was made, through January 20, 2009, when Obama will take the oath of office. The 60s were turbulent and violent, as the nation struggled to wrap its collective arms around a new manifestation of liberty, and the racial skirmishes of the 70s, 80s, and 90s are well documented.

The election of 2008 is a different story. Obama's electoral and popular vote margins, along with the states he was able to flip from Republican to Democrat, clearly demonstrate that the bar has been set high with the full support and participation of the American people. A new day has dawned.

African Americans have now been invited to the party. Literally.

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