By Daniel & Sindiso Mnisi Weeks
As our nation bids farewell to its first African American president, it seems fitting to reflect on the state of race relations in America and the meaning of Barack Obama in our lives. For us, as for so many other people, the story is both personal and political.
Our Obama story began on June 21st, 2007, the day we met each other and heard a youthful Senator Obama speak on Capitol Hill. At that time, we could scarcely imagine he would be elected president of the United States the following year, or that we would fall in love across racial, cultural, and continental divides. But, as we like to say, God has a sense of humor.
It would be an understatement to say that we came to the Academy from different spaces. Sindiso arrived in Washington from a rural village in her native South Africa, where she had spent the second year of her Oxford PhD living in a small hut with an outhouse researching human rights in indigenous communities. It was a throwback to her early years in the Soweto township under apartheid.
Meanwhile, Dan was taking the summer break from Oxford to help build a government reform organization back home in New Hampshire (plumbing included), and making frequent trips to Capitol Hill. Sindiso had never heard of lily-white New Hampshire or visited Washington. Dan was a 12th-generation Granite Stater with a DC pedigree, and skin as white as can be.
Obama's brief remarks struck a chord in us, for they revealed the foundations and the aspirations of our future union. He spoke about Civil Rights and the anti-apartheid struggle, which made our marriage legal. He spoke about equality and reconciliation, which made it conceivable. And he stressed the never-ending fight for social justice, to which we both aspired.
His words and his example have inspired not only us, but millions of other Americans who seek to bridge our nation's racial divide in both personal and public terms. It's not that he was the first American child born of an interracial union or the first African American to espouse such lofty goals - he wasn't - but he was the first to really make it in a white man's world.
America, like our family, has grown since we first met. Although glaring, unresolved challenges remain in areas like criminal justice, voting rights, education, and economic opportunity, we take a cautiously optimistic view of the progress made on race relations over the past eight years and look to a brighter future beyond the incoming administration. Our hope derives, in no small part, from the attitudes and actions of young Americans, both white and black.
Consider that for the first six years of the Obama presidency, Americans reported race relations were better than at any point since polling on the question began in the early 1990s, according to detailed analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Consider that when poll results changed for the worse in 2014, it was in (appropriate) response to a spate of gut-wrenching police shootings of unarmed black men - symptoms of a longstanding racial injustice finally made visible by cameras and social media.
Consider that millions of Americans, including 60% of whites under age 30, responded with support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Obama Justice Department commenced critical civil rights investigations of police departments where shootings had taken place.
With the turbulence of 2014 came growing white awareness of systemic racism in our society - another harbinger of change. While white Americans had previously maintained, by margins of 55-to-36 percent, that the United States had already "made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites," a reversal occurred in 2014 with 53 percent now believing further changes were needed, compared to 38 percent opposed (fully 88 percent of African Americans assented). On these and other measures, young white Americans revealed a far higher awareness of the presence of institutionalized racism than their older counterparts.
And on a matter close to our hearts, the data also showed a significant jump in the rate of multiracial marriages, with 17 percent of white people, 28 percent of black people, 43 percent of Hispanics, and 46 percent of Asians getting married to a person of a different race in 2008-10 (the latest available data). While the rise in new multiracial unions was evident across every group, it was most pronounced among white and black Americans. This is significant for more than sentimental reasons: research shows that when we forge meaningful relationships of any kind across the "color line," we are more likely to see and stop systemic racism.
Progress, like a marriage, does not happen on its own. It comes in fits and starts. The election of Donald Trump, a man with a worrisome history of race-bating and discrimination, and the (momentary?) rise of white supremacist elements of his electoral coalition, are deeply disturbing. Likewise, the nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, a senator whose prior appointment to the bench was blocked on grounds of racism, puts future departmental action at risk. The ascent of both men may well be a reaction against Obama - a fit and not a start.
Nevertheless, as long as Americans do not accept the unacceptable - and now undeniable - devaluation of black and brown lives, and press instead for change, change will come.
What would we tell our children, were they old enough to understand? First, we would tell them their president was black and the product of a biracial union, just like they. When his opponents went low, he and his family "went high," and so can they. Second, we would say the struggle for social justice is theirs, and yet so much bigger than they. We would exhort them to play their part with a sense of urgency, even as they honor the giants of justice on whose shoulders they stand, and entrust their struggle ultimately to God.
To that end, we would point them to one such giant whose birthday we marked this week. Although Martin Luther King, Jr. would not live to see the day when his children would play, as equals, with white children, he spoke prophetic wisdom when he observed, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The Obamas have done their part in politics. Now it's up to us.
Daniel and Sindiso live with their son and daughter in New Hampshire, USA. They keep a blog at www.SindisoAndDan.org.