Thursday, November 6, 2008

President-Elect Obama

It has taken me a day to digest the concept of a President Obama.

That is not true. A day has passed, and I still cannot fully digest it. That may take months, or perhaps even years. But a few thoughts are starting to coalesce, and so I thought I would share them. I will start with an anecdote that is, I believe, truly reflective of where we are now, collectively, as an American culture.

An Obama campaign worker recounts calling a home in Pennsylvania. The caller was exhorting the resident to vote for Obama. The resident responded positively. “Yeah, I’m gonna vote for the Nigger.”

How bittersweet.

And so, we have, I believe, a framework for a significant slice of the electorate.

We have, in this country, a complicated relationship with the concept of race. The conventional wisdom of this election cycle has been that in these times of economic crisis people will vote their pocketbook over their cultural or social issues, and presumably over their racial biases.

And indeed if that is so, then President Obama’s selection is a reflection of excellence on a grand scale. On the one hand, President-elect Obama’s race and ethnicity is almost certainly a driving force behind the level of enthusiasm for his support. But on the other hand, Obama certainly could not have won without a sizeable number of people that felt the way that our emblematic if not broadly representative Pennsylvania voter felt.

The concept of voting for the best candidate, despite social or racial animus, speaks to a concept that has been, since my early years, pounded mercilessly into my head. The concept is that, as a black person, you have to be far better than your counterpart in order to be accepted and in order to succeed. There is no successful black person of my generation I know that has not been taught that lesson.

And indeed, Obama’s success is driven by an excellence that, at the end of the day could absolutely not be denied. Of course we have no idea whether he will be a great president. But we already know he is a transformative, leader of proportions not seen since JFK or even perhaps before him. Obama has shattered the racial glass ceiling by not just being excellent, but by being an extraordinary, perhaps even a once in a lifetime candidate.

And so, while I am giddy with the symbolism of an African-American president, and while I am joyful about the impact of that imagery for little boys and girls of all races and ethnicities who will truly come to believe in a reality of boundless possibility, and while I am proud of the image a President Obama sends to countries around the world that could never make such a choice, I am sobered by the reality that we still have a long way to go. For I believe Obama had to be as extraordinary as he actually is to have actually succeeded, and as I see it far more extraordinary than any of his competitors.

This sobriety does not diminish my joy for the moment. But I am fearful that we will forget that double digit percentages of the American population have told exit pollsters that, in effect, they could not vote for a black candidate. I am troubled by the fact that having the middle name Hussein, was a powerful disincentive for many. I am frightened by a Republican party that has firmly believed that the only way to win recent elections was not based on ideas, but on subtle racial divisiveness.

To be clear, I am not one that believes that all Republicans or Republican/conservative ideas are bad. In fact I embrace many of the ideals. But the fact that the party has operated for the last eight or nine election cycles based on the belief that their survival is tied, in large part, to a fear of blackness, is shameful. And that such beliefs are still driving tactics in a 2008 election is a reflection of the fact that we still have a significant way to go.

But make no mistake. Today is still a day for celebration. I could never have believed that this country would elect a black president in my lifetime. As is often the case this is one of those beliefs about which I am delighted to be wrong. And while there is indeed still a long way to go, November 4th 2008 will be a day that will go down in history as one of the most important days in the history of our republic.

This historic importance is driven by the fact that, while we have not arrived at the Promised Land, we can now see a clear path to that more beautiful place. Over time, hatreds, and biases will die, if not figuratively then literally, as the inexorable march of time takes from us those from an earlier era, less accepting of a more diverse world. And as our country continues to become more ethnically diverse, it will insist that the corridors of power look like the halls of their workplaces, and the sidewalks of their neighborhoods.

Yes, today is a day to celebrate. We celebrate not because we have arrived at our final destination of broad cultural acceptance, and not even because the train has arrived to take us there. Today is a day for celebration because we are standing on the platform and we have waited a long time. And we can now, finally, off in the distance, see the headlights, and so we know that change is indeed coming.


  1. Did you see Colin Powell's take on Obama? I feel like he nailed the issue of race and the "Hussein" question very eloquently:

    Colin Powell, incidentally, was the first black American that I felt had the prestige to have been a major presidential contender if he'd chosen to step up to that role. I really felt like the first term under Bush strained both his politics and dignity, but I've always had a pretty deep respect for him as a statesman.

  2. Scott,

    Indeed. I did hear colin powell on the issue. It was brilliant. And I agree about colin powell being the first with the requisite prestige. I think he could have been a good candidate.

  3. We'll probably never get rid of racism entirely. But this was a huge step. My wife is due with our first baby in 2 weeks, and he's going to be born into a world where the idea of a black man being president is not a particularly noteworthy fact. He'll probably never be able to relate to the racial tension that previous generations felt. This simple thought fills me with an immense pride and satisfaction.

  4. Before you leap to a conclusion, I am a registered Independent.

    You said about Republicans, "their survival is tied, in large part, to a fear of blackness".

    I challenge you to show me one place in which the Republican campaign for John McCain "played the race card." That card, in fact, was used contiuously by Obama himself in his own comments during the campaign.

    Do your homework.

  5. Mikel,

    Please re-read the paragraph. And if you are going to quote me quote an entire sentence.

  6. It's not just a fear of blackness, though I'm sure that's there. It's a tribal fear and loathing of everything that is "not-them." Whether that's other religions, other nations, other ideologies, other races, it's all the same to the people who have been shaping the Republican core message for the last 20 years.

    For all of Reagan's corruption, confusion, and anti-constitutional collusion, at least the face of his campaign and of his administration was that of a unifier; but the Bushes have crystallized the division between sectors in America to a degree not seen since the Civil War.

    So it's almost ironic when on occasion some plank in the Republican platform is superior to a Democratic opinion. The last Republican president I could have any respect for at all was Eisenhower; and that was before I was born.

  7. Congratulations, Hank!

    As one of the international readers that you have, I can confirm that the perception of change is good:

    United States of America has decided to start from a new ground (this president is young, really smart, with politics and background that differ from the ones of Bush Jr. and so forth). I don't agree or disagree with Obama's policies, but Im looking forward to what he will do.

    Im not in the position to judge, but racism is still really strong in my country and I believe that we will end up walking the same path eventually, so this is truly inspiring. I hope that we can put the race differences apart and chose leaders based on their actions and ideals, not due to ethnicities.

    Just a thought.

  8. Here in the UK my son was so proud to go into school on Wednesday and tell his other six year old classmates that he had a new president. He was born in Oregon, where we, his parents, would not have been allowed to marry in the year Obama was born. He was so pleased that finally there is a reason to be proud of being American, as here they are normally blamed for Bush and Iraq and that's it.

    I worry that a lot of people have unrealistic expectations. The harsh truth is the economy is a mess, oil running out and wars over energy our future. But at least we have someone who knows where abroad is -and isn't scared of it. Because that is one thing the republican party was good at: selling a fear of the outsider; the one who was different, the foreigner. Which we cannot afford to do, not in the current world.

    I look forward to the day when all us cities that use president names for streets have an Obama avenue lined up with the rest. "Turn left at the junction of 5th and Obama". A future when the profoundness of this event happened so long ago that the time before is, somehow, unusual.

  9. @Lawrence

    I feel it misses the mark when we lump together any president with Bush2. He alone is notable for his deep creative passion for finding ways to divide the American people.

    Before Bush2/Rove/Cheney/Palin we had a strong United States of America. These political yahoos did everything in their power, using whatever means, to split us by strengthening the strong and weakening the weak. And for what?

    For cynical corrupted political gain; they'd rather have it their way than have it be workable for all.

  10. Anonymous, it's certainly true that Bush 2 was vastly, hugely worse than Bush 1.

    Bush 1 was just a mediocre-to-bad president, who suffered terribly in charisma comparisons to his predecessor. But we've had plenty of other equally bad presidents. Bush 2 certainly was awful in every way, possibly the worst ever American chief executive.

    However, the "politics of division" worked pretty well under Bush 1, with the hardline tribal Republican attack style being refined under that administration, to its ultimate expression under Bush 2, so that's why I lumped them together.

  11. I’m thrilled for Obama, not because he’s black, but because he seems to be reasonable. The bar for good governance is that low.

    That being said, I couldn’t be more thrilled to have a black president-elect, a moderate-liberal executive, and an objective, accomplished free-thinker as my head-of-state.

  12. The very first point you make about Obama's win is about people who said they'll "vote for the nigger". And... this kind of nasty bigotry is

    "truly reflective of where we are now, collectively, as an American culture" - "a framework for a significant slice of the electorate" - plus a "sizeable number of people" feel as that "Pennsylvania voter felt".

    You say "I am fearful that we will forget that double digit percentages of the American population have told exit pollsters that, in effect, they could not vote for a black candidate".

    What's that percentage from? Google points maybe to PA primaries, but according to NY Times 19% of PA primary voters said race was important, but almost half of them were Obama voters. There were more white voters who said race was important and voted Hillary. Still sucks, but it's PA and NOT the US...

    According to Pew Research Center, the real national percentage is about 3%-6%, and it's been sinking FAST...

    And btw, statistically Repubs are as likely as Dems to vote for a black candidate...

    No doubt Obama's win is a great moment for US history, and I think maybe you're having trouble letting go of your grievances- Your race/perceptions glass sounds about 1/4 full. Whatever, but at least try to get the FACTS right...

  13. Hank,

    It is perfectly legitimate to quote whatever portion of your statements I prefer, especially when the entire blog entry is just a few inches above it.

    However, you have still not answered my challenge, which I shall repeat below [but only a portion :-) ]

    "show me one place in which the Republican campaign for John McCain 'played the race card'."

    - Mikel

    Hmm...seems I just quoted only a po

  14. Mikel,

    Since I did not say what you are asking me to respond to, I see no reason to respond to your question. That is why I suggested it might be useful to quote me more precisely.

  15. Okay, here is the quote:

    "But the fact that the party has operated for the last eight or nine election cycles based on the belief that their survival is tied, in large part, to a fear of blackness, is shameful. And that such beliefs are still driving tactics in a 2008 election is a reflection of the fact that we still have a significant way to go."

    What tactics did the McCain campaign use that lends credence to your statements above? I honestly cannot think of even one.

    - Mikel

  16. Mikel,

    What you seem to miss is that the party is not john mccain. The party is bigger than john mccain, and will live on after he is long gone. I do not believe that John McCain is personally guilty of much in this regard, though I do think he condoned more than I would like, relative to his party I would have to consider him fairly honorable.

    But I do think that the use of "hussein" suggesting he is muslim, suggesting he is not "one of us", suggesting that colin powell's endorsement is according to rush limbaugh, "all about race" I think is all shameful. Most of it has nothing to do with McCain, and my beef is not with him, and not with republican ideals, but with the party and its long history, admittedly muted but not eliminated by McCain.

  17. Hank,

    Thank you for this post. I checked on your blog this morning to see if you'd expressed an opinion on this momentous event.

    As others have expressed, however, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the tenor of the post. I may well be misreading you, but it seems that your underlying assumption is that a significant, even decisive number of voters chose Obama in spite of their racial animus towards him.

    As a white American I cannot speak with authority about the amount of racism in our country. However, I think it's reasonable to assume that most whites who have trouble voting for a black candidate didn't. It seems likely that for every white person who voted for Obama in spite of their racism, there were many more who, like me, considered Obama's race to be a positive factor.

    I've been a strong Obama supporter since 2004, was thrilled that he chose to run, was amazed that he beat Clinton, and I am ecstatic that I was able to cast my vote for him. The reasons are many, including his intelligence, the depth of his knowledge about and passion for our country (history, constitution, etc.), and his ability to inspire.

    But I also support him because of his race. Not, to partially quote you, "despite social or racial animus." I understand the message of blacks needing to be superior in order to get ahead. Certainly Obama is far superior to any other candidate in 2008 -- or in the past 40 years. But speaking for myself, I voted for Obama because of my lack of racial animus.

    I'm not saying I'm some model of non-racism -- that certainly isn't the case; I'm a product of my country and my times. But I want racism to go away (as much as possible). I want blacks to feel, to believe and to know that they are equal members of this great but flawed country. I want my young daughter to grow up seeing a black family in the White House and to consider that "normal." I want my mixed-race niece to believe that she is not limited by her skin color.

    A black male co-worker told me the other day that for the first time he believes the line in the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal." That's what I hoped for.

    And I have great hope for the next 8 years.



  18. " it seems that your underlying assumption is that a significant, even decisive number of voters chose Obama in spite of their racial animus towards him"


    I agree that most people who had overt animus towards him on the basis of race did not vote for him. My example is certainly extreme. And while I think that the positive aspects of his race certainly outweighted the negative (he won) there is still a substantial number of people who voted for him but are uncomfortable with the idea. I think western pennsylvania is the most interesting example of this. White working class folks that would never have voted for him if not for the incredible economic crisis and the fact that McCain just seemed like such the wrong choice. These are the folks who voted so strongly for hillary and that McCain, erroneously thought he could win based on cultural differences and not based on policy.

  19. Hank,
    I'm a Republican and the fact that you tie Republicans to racism is absurd. We voted based on our ideals. If our candidate was black we would have voted for him just the same. So, I understand how your feeling. The democrats were the first to nominate a black candidate so they want bragging rights. I'm fine with that, but that doesn't mean Republican ideals are based on fearing blacks. Abraham Lincoln was a republican, oh yeah but wait, that was past 8-9 election cycles ago so it doesn't count. Oh please. Our nation elected a black man for president and we should all be proud of that. You make it sound like the biggest hurdle ever for blacks in America was the republican party. Like it was Blacks vs the Republican party all along. You are insane my friend, but I am proud that we have a black president and I'll be just as proud when we have a woman as a president. So come back to earth would you.

  20. "You make it sound like the biggest hurdle ever for blacks in America was the republican party."

    This is funny. Ever heard of lee atwater. The southern strategy, Rush Limbaugh, who some time last year called Obama "halfrican-american", wille horton etc. The fact that you earnestly believe what you are saying (and I do believe that) is funny. The only thing I can think of is that you must be very young and not read or listen to much news. Yes, the republican party since nixon has been either actively or more subtly racist. Amazing no one sent you the memo.

  21. "I challenge you to show me one place in which the Republican campaign for John McCain 'played the race card.'"

    Mikel, you're joking, right? Buddy, wake up. Anyone that doesn't have their head in the sand realizes that ever since Ronald Regan kicked of his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, conservatives have dealt in symbolism and "code speak" which allows them to spread racial F.U.D. without appearing to be bigots.

    "Who is Barack Obama?" "We can't trust Barack Obama." "Barack Obama is not patriotic." "Barack Obama is un-American." "Barack HUSSEIN Obama." “Barack Obama is a Muslim. He went to a Muslim school.” “Barack Obama wasn’t born in America.” These are all examples of the code speak in which conservatives engage so they don't have to come right out and say, "be afraid of the nigger." Barack Obama has had a flashlight up his butt ever since he started thinking about running for president. You probably know more about Obama than you know about your own mother. But that didn't prevent the McCain campaign from playing on the fears of Middle America. They didn’t play the race card, they were the race card.

    The problem with our electorate is that there are so many like you whou don't recognize bigotry when they are immersed in it.

  22. Watch the movie or FrontLine episode about Lee Attwater to understand that the Republican party uses what ever works to win. That includes racism. Even those, like Attwater, who profess to not be racist will "play the race card" to win an election. Only when the majority consistently rejects that approach (as we did this year) will they stop.

  23. Lula da Silva: "the financial crisis is the fault of the white and blue-eyed".


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