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CSRRR lecture: "Celebrating Civil Rights in the Age of Obama"

by Leslie Cowan
Law Student Writer/ 2L

Last fall, in Baltimore County, Maryland, Professor Sherrilyn Ifill’s neighbor debuted a “brand-spanking-new” confederate flag in front of his home. It had been only days since the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States. The flag struck a nerve with Ifill, a University of Maryland School of Law professor. She immediately told her husband, “we have to move.”

While she later decided that the flag did not warrant relocation, the timing of its display, as well as the emotional distress and pain that the confederate flag still causes for many, revealed an ugly truth about American society post-election: racism is not dead.

Ifill addressed the Levin College of Law on March 16 as the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations’ annual speaker. She titled her presentation “Celebrating Civil Rights in the Age of Obama.”

Ifill has penned a book titled On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, as well as several articles that address racism within the judicial system.

According to Ifill, one of the most recent reminders that American society is far from free of racism, is the “downright sinister” cartoon published by the New York Post in February depicting a chimpanzee shot to death by police officers with the caption “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Ifill acknowledged that undoubtedly the cartoon was partly inspired by the recent Connecticut chimpanzee attack that left a woman in critical condition with permanent, disfiguring injuries. Yet by incorporating the stimulus bill within the cartoon, the “connection between Obama and chimp,” as well as reminders of hurtful racist comparisons between African-Americans and primates were obvious.

Darker motives were clear as well, according to Ifill, “added in context of police brutality against young black men,” as well as the looming “spectre of assassination which surrounds Barack Obama.” In response to public outrage over the cartoon, Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who owns the New York Post, issued a tepid, near-apology, the gist of which Ifill described as “I’m sorry if you were offended.”

“We have to counter the effort of some who seek to use Obama’s election as a symbol of the end of the civil rights, that racism is dead, that America has fulfilled her promise of equality,” Ifill urged.

She identified the two issues most discussed by the president and his staff to further racial progress as education and environmental justice, yet argues that the most pressing issue is the one least likely to be addressed by the Obama administration—the prison system.

Calling it a “huge indictment on our society,” Ifill cited society’s casual acceptance of prisons as the propelling factor behind the willingness to treat prison as a repository and inmates as though they no longer matter. Ifill also argued that society ignores the need for rehabilitation of inmates to prepare them for integration back into society upon their release.

According to Ifill, at least one bill has been proposed to help address racial disparities in the United States. Yet unsigned into law, the Justice Integrity Act of 2009 “provides projects in 10 jurisdictions to collect data, information for what we need to know about racial disparities, [and] how we can make changes to racial disparities.”

The overarching theme of Ifill’s lecture is clear— although the election of Barack Obama reflects one African-American man’s achievement of the American Dream it does not in itself fulfill the dream for all African-Americans. If racism is ever to be eradicated, the United States must zealously and deliberately continue to press forward.

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