Step back for a moment and consider what happened Tuesday. The people of the United States have elected an African-American man named Barack Obama as their president.
Step back for a moment and consider what happened Tuesday.
The people of the United States have elected an African-American man named Barack Obama as their president.
Given the corrosive role of race in the American saga, this is a seminal event. Not only for this country, but for any country.
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There does not appear to be a single instance in “the entire history of the human condition,” to use the words of writer Shelby Steele, in which a major nation-state has chosen to put a member of such a historically downtrodden minority in charge.
“It says to everyone in America, ‘You can be president someday,’ ” Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said. “It plays into our national mythology in a very real and profound way. … This isn’t affirmative action. This is winning.”
What gives special power to this milestone — which barely was discussed during the campaign — is that it arrived years, perhaps decades, earlier than most people thought it would.
“This is beyond the wildest dreams of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Ron Walters, who helped run Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. “After those campaigns, I thought you’d never have a black president in my lifetime.”
In the annals of black history, it ranks with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Supreme Court’s 1954 school-desegregation decision, historians say. As an election outcome, it’s up there with Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1932.
“Whether or not this turns out to be a realigning election or ushers in a new progressive era, I think it’s going to be larger than we imagine in its impact,” author Doris Kearns Goodwin said. “So much of the past had to have been laid aside to allow this to happen.”
And much of the rest of the international community will applaud.
“There is utter amazement around the world that this is happening,” said William Gray III, a former Philadelphia congressman who recorded some black political firsts during his career.
“In other countries, people see it as an affirmation of the American dream, that this is a place of wonderful opportunity for everyone,” Gray said. “What may seem simple to us as Americans is terribly profound to them.”
Not everything in the realm of race relations changes with Obama’s victory.
It’s too early to gauge the impact. Some black leaders worry that whites will think that full racial equality has arrived — even though, they say, there’s still a lot of work to do.
The economic conditions of black life in urban America aren’t going to change overnight. But the national conversation about race will be transformed in any number of ways.
Rep. Artur Davis, a black Democrat from Alabama, said that African Americans no longer would be able to portray themselves credibly as perennial “victims,” not when the Obama family was living in the White House.
“That vocabulary, that way of talking about issues, has to change,” Davis said, suggesting that questions of social need would have to be framed in terms of opportunity and economics rather than race.
“It can’t simply be a conversation about who did what to whom. A significant number of white Americans will reject that conversation.”
Obama made much the same point during his race speech in Philadelphia in March, saying that blacks must bind “our particular grievances … to the large aspirations of all Americans.”
Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University and an African American, said earlier this year that Obama’s black supporters were “voting for the end of race as we’ve known it.”
His point was to alert blacks to the possibility that some whites might use an Obama victory to argue that society no longer needed to concern itself with black poverty, economic inequality and affirmative action.
“Barack Obama knows this, but America is deeply confused about it,” Loury said.
Millions of Americans, of course, are disheartened by the outcome.
They worry about having Obama in charge of the country’s economy and its national security. They see him as untested and largely unknown, and wonder whether he can handle the daunting list of problems he will inherit.
But those who care about race in American life, including some who oppose Obama’s policies, see any number of reasons to celebrate. One is that the outcome couldn’t have happened without tens of millions of white votes — although no one will ever know if Obama would have won absent the economic meltdown.
Obama’s election reduces the “constant sense of doubt” that African Americans harbor about their role in this society, said Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University.
It shows “what a tolerant and generous society this is,” said Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute think tank.
And it goes a long way toward healing “the open wound that is racism in America,” said Roland Anglin, an expert on race and urban affairs at Rutgers University.
Those are the intellectuals. Listen, too, to the voice of Gideon Morrow, 78, an African American and Obama voter.
“I came up in deep, deep segregation,” he said. “There is no way I could envision this happening. I’m glad I’ve lived to see it.”