NEW ORLEANS (AP) — To Marc Lamont Hill, the election of Barack Obama proves black America can reach a goal once considered unattainable, but it doesn't end the fight on such issues as education reform, job creation and fair wages – a focus of a State of the Black World Conference opening in New Orleans this week.
“Barack Obama is not going to change everything. But what he can do is be an ally, rather than an enemy to our struggle the way George Bush has for the last eight years,” said Hill, an assistant professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Hill is among hundreds of black leaders expected in New Orleans for the conference, organized by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century.
The goal of the gathering is to devise policy initiatives that can be promoted nationally, from improving education to bringing parity in drug sentencing and cracking down on inner-city gun violence. They also want to capitalize on grassroots energy generated by Obama's election to push for more change in local communities.
Hill noted issues ranging from expansion of a living wage to strides in unionization and reaffirming a commitment to public education where he believes Bush has let urban, black and working-class communities down.
“Millions of people marched on ballot boxes because they had hope,” said Ron Daniels, president of the institute. “Now, we want to translate that hope into tangible policies which will advance the interests of not only black people, (but also) Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and poor and working people in the middle class.”
The conference, which opened Wednesday, sought the viewpoints of veteran civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and up-and-coming leaders like Hill and Veronica Conway. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is expected to speak Sunday, the final day of the conference.
Conway, a career and life coach in northern California, said Obama's election left a “profound imprint” on the nation and opened up new possibilities. She likened it to the running of the first 4-minute mile.
“I think that the issue of race has always been very polarizing (but) I think it's becoming less so,” said Conway, 41. “I think black's becoming the new white, like, it's kind of cool to be black now.”
She does, however, plan to issue a call to action during the conference.
“I think, very often at black conferences, we talk about our issues ad nauseam. We don't leave with any action accountability,” she said. “That's not good enough anymore, business as usual in the black world.”
She said there must be an end to blacks' historical assumption they are victims, and moves to act progressively without “permission from the dominant culture.”
Obama's election also marked a “moment of redemption for white people, quite frankly,” she said.
“A lot of people were very relieved. There's something that got healed, I think, in this moment,” she said.
Obama's win, the breaking of that barrier, also provided youth – who often see Hip-Hop stars as powerful – with an alternative image of a strong man, she said.
Bringing in the younger generation, whose texting and YouTube ways of communicating are in contrast with traditional mass marches of civil rights advocates, will be key to continue making strides in pushing for change, Conway and others say.
Hill, 29, who considers the 67-year-old Jackson a friend and mentor, said having an intergenerational dialogue – learning from veteran leaders, understanding what they accomplished and what they endured – is critical.
“In the history of America, I would argue, there's never been a battle that we've fought for that we didn't win, and there's never been any social victory, or any victory, that we didn't fight for,” he said. “So, fighting's not only desirable, it's necessary. It's our obligation, and when you understand it as an obligation to our ancestors and to our children, it keeps you going.”