The Meaning of It All


I’m still caught somewhere between awe, disbelief, relief, and giddiness over Obama’s win last night and this morning. I figured that a person of color would be highly competitive for America’s highest office in our lifetime, but until this year, I wasn’t sure about someone winning it all. But what does it really mean? Are we really past race in America? Has Obama transcended race? Does it mean, as the great neocon Bill Bennett said last night, that there “are no more excuses” for African Americans and other folks of color when it comes to opportunity? Was this a truly post-racial campaign and movement that swept Obama into office?

One of my first book talks for my book Fear of a “Black” America occurred at my former job during Black History Month in ’05. About forty people turned out to hear me outline the themes around multiculturalism and American fears of such across race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. I discussed the so-called Culture Wars of the late-80s and ’90s, including neocons like Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, Newt Gingrich, their fears of multiculturalism and their skepticism of an increasingly diverse America.

It was a good talk, as the audience asked so many questions about multiculturalism in the twenty-first century. There were Blacks in the audience who, despite my talk, still thought multiculturalism was a philosophical Barney the Dinosaur song (“I love you, you love me …”). There were Whites who claimed that Blacks weren’t doing enough to overcome the steep socioeconomic and educational barriers that they’ve face over the past four decades. There were Latinos and Asians who, though they agreed with me, didn’t think that I spent enough time talking about other forms of diversity.

Toward the end of the talk, an African American woman in her late forties asked me, “Are we ever going to see the day when racism in this country no longer exists?” Although I could tell some in the audience were snickering at her question, it was a profound question as it was simple in my mind. For it showed someone who lived through the heart of the Civil Rights era who was still willing to hold on to the hope that Blacks and other groups of color would be fully woven into the American tapestry and able to exercise their rights without fear or expectation of discrimination.

So I answered the question, seriously combining my sense of realism and optimism around race in America. I said, “Sure, it’s possible. Look at what has happened with my generation — Generation X — and Generation Y and this new generation coming up now. We’re more receptive to each other in popular culture, more willing to date and marry. I don’t think that racism will ever be fully eradicated, as it will probably evolve into some other form. But I do think that even within our lifetimes, racism as we know it now will be significantly less than it is even now.” I went on to say that even if that didn’t happen, that we as a nation need to do our part in working toward this goal.

I didn’t have the presidency in mind specifically when I said this. I was thinking about my son Noah and the kind of country I want so much for him to grow up in. One where his possibilities aren’t limited because of race or my level of education (although I think I took care of that issue years ago) or because I stagnated in my job or career. I was thinking about the barriers that I had faced to get to my place in life at thirty-five. Between poverty, race, abuse, and actual barriers that I needed to overcome, including professors and supervisors who refused to believe that I was as smart, articulate, and talented as I presented myself to be. I was thinking about where I would want the country to be by the time my son would graduate from high school, the year 2021. I knew that a lot would have to happen for Noah to have the opportunity to go to college as his right, not a gun-slinging gamble like it was for me twenty years ago.

As I’ve said in previous postings, I don’t think that Obama and our election of him means that this country has moved past race. Nor that Obama transcends race. Nor that we’re in a post-racial nation. I can almost guarantee that at least one agent will decide not to represent Boy At The Window because of their calculations of race in their market analysis. Or that I won’t be considered for a high-level job in academia or in the foundation world because of race. Or that I’ll be followed around a book store or a cab driver won’t stop for my hail because of race. And all with President Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

But I also know as an academically-trained historian that a lot has changed in the past thirty or forty years. Folks in this country aren’t colorblind. Whites have warmed up to the idea that Blacks, Latinos and other folks of color are capable of anything, great, horrible and anything in between. Blacks have long since known that we possess the intellectual and spiritual resources necessary to break down any barrier. And younger Americans (and I still include myself in this category — I don’t turn forty until the end of next year) — if they’ve moved past anything — have pushed beyond the Black-White Civil Rights era and ’60s mantra of ideas on race and social justice in general. Obama’s victory opens up a more complicated discussion of race that the O.J. Simpson trials in the ’90s could’ve possibly permitted.

This election is an opportunity to make America’s ideals mean something to so many again, and to do it in everyday and practical terms. Nothing more, nothing less. We’ll know more about the meaning of it all in 2012.

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