Ever since Obama won the elections and masses of Americans celebrated in the streets, I have been thinking about the moment’s duality: on the one hand, people poured into the streets to reclaim their nation’s identity (in light of everything, justifiably or not, the Bush Administration came to symbolize) and the almost indescribable historic jubilation in electing the country’s first ever African American president.
Then on Wednesday over a sandwich, I was reading “La (r)evolución de B. H. O.” in El Pais by M. Á. Bastenier. Bastenier tries to make the argument that Obama’s victory was not really turning point in American race relations but merely reflected a change in the country’s electoral landscape. In a complete misunderstanding of the American reality and a misinterpretation of the numbers, Bastenier writes that it is unclear whether Obama’s victory signifies an important shift in how Americans view race because (i) Obama received the same percentage of votes from whites as did Kerry in 2004, and (ii) the balance was tipped in Obama’s favor with respect to Kerry’s loss in 2004, not because of white voters, but because of the change in the demographics of the American voters. In other words, Obama didn’t win because he got more whites to vote for him but because there was a higher number of Hispanic and African American voters.
Bastenier does admit that Obama did not lose white voters, but in saying so, he totally misses the point. All evidence, at least numeric, points to the fact that Obama’s candidacy was race neutral. White Americans were not divided by racial prejudice but by political preference. In other words, people didn’t vote for or against Obama because he was black; rather they voted based on how they viewed the world politically. Thus, a white Republican vote was not a statement of racial prejudice, nor was a Democrat vote one of racial affirmation. The changing ethnic make-up of the American electorate is a reality that both parties, especially now the Republicans, will have to face in upcoming elections. Nevertheless, the fact that white voters — though their majority is decreasing — did not vote differently for a black Democrat this year than they did for a white one in 2004, is historically important. It means that the majority of Americans vote colorblind.
This, in fact, is the irony of the election. At the moment Obama’s victory was announced, as reflected in John McCain’s very moving concession speech, the historical importance was so great that all Americans, regardless of who they voted for, could partake in the groundbreaking moment. Had the election been nothing more than a mere referedum on race, then only one side could celebrate.
To educate Mr. Bastenier, the weary, or anyone else who is not familiar with American history, just take a look at the photo of the First Family-elect, listen to what Congressman John Lewis had to say a few hours before the results came on Election Night, or take the time to read these words from Bill Moyers’ essay about the watershed moment,
Here at the end of this watershed week, one photograph keeps playing in my mind, and I want to share it with you. It’s from an Obama rally in St. Louis, Missouri, a couple of weeks ago —100,000 people.
Now look more closely at the background, at that old building with a copper dome turned green with age. That used to be the courthouse where slaves were auctioned from the steps. In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriett, both slaves, went there to appeal to the court for their freedom. They said they had been living in states and territories where slavery was outlawed and so should be let go.
They were, briefly, but soon were returned to slavery. When their appeal reached the United States Supreme Court, 11 years later, Chief Justice Roger Taney refused to free them. He ruled that slaves did not have the rights of citizens because Harriet and Dred Scott were, quote, “Beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
You know the storm that followed —civil war, Lincoln’s assassination, the failure of reconstruction, Jim Crow, white supremacy, lynching. So much blood shed, so much suffering, so many martyrs.
My grandchildren have a hard time understanding the America I try to describe to them from my own childhood in East Texas. Across the Deep South whites still resolved to keep blacks in their place, often with a holy fervor.
Above all they were determined to keep blacks from voting, voting meant equality —power. When black veterans coming home from fighting for their country, tried to register, they were assaulted and arrested. In South Carolina one black soldier riding the bus home after 15 months in the South Pacific, angered the driver with some minor act that struck the white man as uppity. At the next stop the veteran was taken off the bus by the local chief of police and beaten so badly he went blind. The police chief was put on trial and acquitted, to the cheers of the courtroom.
In one Georgia county the only black to vote had also just come home from the war. As he sat on his porch the day after the primary, he was shot and killed, and a sign posted on a nearby black church boasted: “The first nigger to vote will never vote again.”
Signs like that did not come down easily. It would take Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma. It would take the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and countless individual acts of heroism. And it would take, finally, take someone like Barack Obama, who, if he had been born a generation earlier, could have been lynched for the audacity of hope, but who now saw that America was changing, is changing, has changed, and that he might be the agent for lifting from around our necks this great stone from the past, by refusing himself to be haunted or ruled by it.
He will of course disappoint; all presidents do —and the first black president will be no more exempt from reality and human nature than the 43 white men who came before him. We don’t know what he will do in office. He has promised that he will take us “there” without saying what “there” entails, or what hard choices must be made. We shall see . . .
On Election Night, I was prepared to relish (quietly at home) in Obama’s victory because for the first time in my life I had felt strongly about a candidate and even publicly advocated on his behalf. At the time, I didn’t fully anticipate that there was going to be something so much more profound than celebrating the election of a new president, the 44th one. But before anyone could reflect, Americans were already in the streets rejoicing in that brief, indelible moment: we were who we wanted to be.