It's almost too hard to believe! Like many, I am extremely happy at last night's election. I'm really overjoyed to be honest! America will now have a black president in Barack Obama. It's a victory for African America from many vantage points. First, one of its own has reached a height that, pre-Obama, most probably thought could not now be attained. Whatever your views about politics in this country, one would have to be uber cynical to not feel optimistic and hopeful about that accomplishment. Second, and more important, this country will now have a real progressive voice in the presidency again. President Obama may have to govern from the center, but, at the very least, he will do so with a clear understanding of the issues and concerns of the left, the middle class, and of the poor. In many ways that will bear fruit for our country and our community in the years to come - whether its in securing affordable health care for all Americans, or leading a more intelligent foreign policy, or creating incentives for American companies to bring jobs back, or whether it is jump-starting a new economy based upon clean and green technologies. Barack will have an extraordinary impact on our country. In many ways, he is the right man at the right time!
For over a year I've said that one of the most powerful consequences of a Barack Obama presidency is the potential impact it could have on African American young people. I am so hopeful about him inspiring them to meaningfully expand the horizons of their aspirations and dreams. Growing up, my mother consistently and strategically told me that I can do anything in life. I can't tell you how important that positive reinforcement was. Even today, I benefit from those words as they sustain me through the natural moments of doubt that we all have. For African American young people to be able to have someone who looks just like them in the White House, as the most powerful man on the planet, it will hopefully deliver a similar empowering message to them that will resonate, perhaps, for generations to come. My hope is that it will propel a whole swath of young black folks to reach just a bit farther and to achieve just a bit more in their lives. This could be the most important aspect of Obama's victory last night.
Barack Obama's election rightfully has generated a tremendous amount of emotion throughout African America, our entire nation, and the world. We saw Jesse Jackson and John Lewis shedding tears last night. They were not alone. While this is a moment that deserves that kind of reaction, it is also important to somewhat more soberly assess the impact of Barack's election. A number of people last night, both black and white, tried to frame Barack's election in a historical context. Naturally, they were romantically talking about "how far we've come", and about MLK's "Dream". While I enthusiastically agree with where those sentiments are coming from, I think it's important that we not over reach.
Barack Obama's election is not a 'be all, end all' event for either this country or our community. Many commentators last night expressed the opinion that Obama's election symbolized broad racial accomplishment in this country. They both inferred, and said, that "We Have Overcome". I respectfully disagree. It is not a different United States of America on November 5, 2008 than on November 4. Unfortunately, this is still the same country that has been constructed to, at almost every turn, suppresses our opportunity, our aspirations, and our dreams.
I've often likened how things work in this country to a board game with a defined set of rules designed to perpetuate the 'American Way of Life' - in all its both grandeur and ignominy. In my opinion, Barack's victory says nothing about America changing the fundamental rules of the game to be more inclusive of African Americans generally. What it says is that if you learn to play the game, if you learn the rules and play them better than anyone else - then your skill at mastering those rules, their rules, can trump the color of your skin. It can be overlooked. It can be excused. It can be ignored.
White America still operates out of a sense of self-interest. It does what is clearly best for it. All communities do. Much of the hell that black folks catch here is because of the conflict between our interests and theirs. It is the tension between those positions, the fact that they have 'the power' and we don't that defines much of the racial landscape in America. What Barack Obama did more artfully than ever was to present himself to the American people as a unique solution to a growing and painful set of problems that they have. Obama is the antidote to Bush, to the Iraq War, to a sagging economy, to high oil prices etc., etc., etc. Let's also not forget, voting for Barack Obama allows white America to feel progressive and sophisticated about race. They are hip and cool and "post racial". In that context, whites throughout this country, voted less for a black man and more for a specific solution. Barack presented himself in a way that made white America believe that he was going to advance their interests. And within the almost 'perfect storm' of political events that we find ourselves in - plus an opponent who's weaknesses made him particularly unequipped to address those challenges - Barack presented the best political alternative, and therefore won.
Americans should be proud of Barack Obama. We should be joyful at his election. But we should also be clear that we haven't "arrived" at some mythical racial Nirvana in this country. We have, to be sure, passed another meaningful way point on the American racial journey - and that is to be commended. But let's be clear: black family net worth will still be disproportionately lower, blacks will still be disproportionately incarcerated, black children will still disproportionately suffer from poor quality education, African America will still face fewer options and less opportunity in America. The combination of race (black) and class (poor) still disproportionately locks African Americans into poverty. In and of itself, those issues do not dissolve just because America voted for Barack Obama.
The proverbial "Mountain Top" that MLK envisioned, I believe, includes an America where all manner of legal, social, and economic fairness and equity define the day. It is a place where "All Men (and women) Are Created Equal"; where each American has a legitimate shot at the brass ring of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness". "President Barack Obama" is a wonderful accomplishment, but his election in and of itself does not mean that America has overcome its racial past or its current problem as it relates to race.
All hail the chief! Let's be happy. Let's be hopeful. I am enthusiastic that President Obama will make significant inroads on our collective, national, problems. I so much look forward to his administration. The vision of his daughters roaming around the White House a la Caroline and JFK Jr. is absolutely heart warming for me. Let's just also realize that we all have a lot of work to do to make this country what it can, and should, be. Let's not bask, but let's be energized toward action!
We are overcoming!