Leonard Pitts Jr

We've come a very long way

These things happened last week in America.

* Federal officials were quoted as saying Latino street gangs in Los Angeles have been killing people at random because they are black.

* A new study found that ER doctors are less likely to prescribe strong pain medication for black and brown patients.

* Barack Obama won Iowa's Democratic caucus.

If the first two events are more of the same old same old, if they speak yet one more time to the wearying intransigence of American tribalism, chauvinism and prejudgement, what shall we say about the third? Not about its portent for politics, but about the simple fact that a black man, running for the nation's highest office, went into one of its whitest states and came out triumphant.

Maybe you think the answer is simple, and in one sense it is. What else is Obama's win if not graphic evidence that we have made racial progress?

Still, it's been my experience that we -- meaning African Americans -- are sometimes loath to concede the reality of progress. Who can blame us? That same wearying intransigence, its tendency to play out in violence, poverty, discrimination and insult that delimit and deform our very perception of self, leaves little time or inclination for the counting of blessings. It doesn't help that white people -- again, in my experience -- often cheerfully overestimate the amount and meaning of progress.

And yet . . . hello? Barack Obama just won Iowa. And the ongoing argument over the volume of water in the proverbial glass -- half empty? half full? -- fades behind a simple realization and celebration that we have, in fact, come a very long way.

In April, it will be 40 years since Martin Luther King told us he had seen the Promised Land. "I may not get there with you, " he warned, "but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."

We are not there yet. Forty years later, the destination remains elusive. But at the same time, we have certainly moved somewhere. No one could have conceived of a Barack Obama, a Michael Jordan, a Condoleezza Rice, a Denzel Washington, a Shonda Rhimes, a Douglas Wilder, a Bob Johnson, an Oprah Winfrey, a Colin Powell or a me on the night Dr. King spoke.

The challenge facing African Americans is whether we can build upon the progress we have made. But before you can build upon a thing, you have to trust it, and that's not always a simple thing. I was talking the other day with a black preacher who said he's heard some black folks say they won't vote for Obama because they like him -- and don't want to see him shot.

You wish you could simply dismiss that fear, but you can't: African-American progress has too often been thwarted by gunfire. Indeed, King himself was killed less than a day after he issued his famous prophecy. So the danger is frighteningly real.

Still, grounded as the fear is in reality, I tend to think it also is grounded to some lesser degree in the fact that our history has conditioned us to wait for the other shoe to drop, to regard apparent progress warily, to look for the dark cloud behind the silver lining. I submit that in Obama's victory there is none. I submit that black people should see this, and use this, as a building stone. I submit that what Obama accomplished should warm all of us -- black, white, brown, liberal, conservative -- for it speaks well of all of us and our progress in the journey to the kind of nation we want to, and ought to, be.

Last week, Barack Obama won Iowa. What should we say about that? Maybe we should just say that Sam Cooke was right: A change is gonna come.

And the fact that we have a long way yet to go should not blind us to the long way we have already traveled.