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.”
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.