Hope cuts across barriers

Obama and equality

After eight years of political free fall, President-elect Barack Obama is being cast as America's knight in shining armour: the liberator, the longed-for messiah. Hopes are so great that they are bound to be disappointed to some degree, and this may already be happening in the arena of equality and civil rights.

Many people have taken Obama's victory as symbolising that there are no barriers left anywhere - no racism, no sexism, no class problems. On the one hand, it is true that we "have come so far", as Obama himself said in his acceptance speech. The distance travelled over the past 50 years is considerable. African Americans have become much more integrated in workplaces, in the media, in the professions. Women no longer enter clubs by the back door, nor are they barred from professional sports; and half of all law school graduates are female. An all-American diversity of minorities - gays, Latinos, Hmong Americans, Arab Americans and Jewish Americans - has made strides, thanks to various civil rights laws barring discrimination.

So it is not just the nadir of the Bush administration that, by contrast alone, renders Obama's ascendancy so attractive. Our democracy has demonstrated an unusual ability to rethink its hierarchies and remedy its own inequalities.

At the same time, the United States remains marked by significant social divisions. Housing and schooling are still disgracefully segregated by race. The conditions in our prisons - to say nothing of the astronomically disproportionate rates of incarceration for blacks and Latinos - are so dire that they have become a matter of concern to international human rights organisations. Hate crimes against gays, Sikhs, non-English speakers and Muslims are on the rise. Women are still bumping their heads against glass ceilings and fighting for invitations to corporate power lunches. And given the plummeting economy, class divisions and resentment are likely to become much more of a force in American society than in the past.

So it is a sad paradox that Obama's success is sometimes used as an excuse to undermine the very laws that allowed the country to transform itself over the past decades. Our media throngs with pundits who crow that we have arrived at a "post-race" moment. The calls to end affirmative action (or positive discrimination) programmes in schools and recruitment grow louder; there have been disturbing moves to eliminate crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Barack Obama will have little to say about this in the short term. The future of many civil rights laws now rests in large part with the courts. And one of the most enduring legacies of the Reagan and Bush years is the composition of our federal judiciary: more than three-quarters of the appellate courts are Republican choices, appointed for life. Similarly, the Supreme Court is composed of four relatively liberal justices, four hard-right justices and one wavering, somewhat unpredictable tie-breaker.

In working to elect Obama, we Americans explicitly acknowledged the wretched recent past: the inexplicable ruling of 2000 in Bush v Gore, the uncounted ballots, the disenfranchisement not only of felons but of anyone whose name "resembled" that of a felon, the degree to which these actions victimised communities of colour, liberal communities and Jewish and immigrant neighbourhoods. In view of this recent history, armies of citizens turned out en masse to monitor the polls this time round. This was a wonderful expression of "the will of the people" but at the same time the courts seem to be moving in the opposite direction. In the past couple of years, our highest courts have upheld new prerequisites for voting, such as photo IDs issued by a government office. This may sound neutral, but such requirements have a history of being ciphers for more complex racial realities: in rural black communities, for example, where birth certificates may be lost or never have been issued, the ability to vote had been based on showing something like a utility bill.

There are so many serious struggles ahead. Yet, over the course of his campaign, Obama repeatedly reminded us that "out of many we are one". Indeed, he won this election because he built a real community on the ground; he didn't just woo a statistical constituency. And if anything at all can sustain the "superhuman" expectations abroad in the land, it just might be that feeling of cohesion and engagement. I'm not thinking of the industry of hagiography surrounding his image - the T-shirts, the hats, the button badges, the praise songs - but of the phone networks, the Twittering, the websites, the accumulated power of millions of small donations from students, labourers and "poor widows". African Americans felt suddenly connected; young people showed up in unexpected numbers; Americans of all stripes really worked to get Obama elected. That sense of investment is why up to four million people will be flocking to Washington, DC on Inauguration Day, exhilaration undimmed.

This is hope in action and we must share Barack Obama's good-natured sense of purpose. But it must not be defeated by burdening a single man with the dead weight of idol worship. It is about all of us, huddled around our newborn dreams for the future, keeping them alive and shepherding them to fruition.

Patricia J Williams is the James Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia Law School