January 20, 2009. What a glorious day? Americans and the world have so much to be proud and grateful for as the first biracial man of color has become the President of the United States. I know most people call him a black or African-American man and some call him a multiracial man (as Tiger Woods sees himself), but whatever label we use, he is a first. I like to think of Barack Obama as biracial because in that way he represents most of America’s ancestry and history. He is a living symbol of how far America and the world have come since 1776 in terms of justice and equality.
President Obama symbolically represents slaves, and slaveholders, and those who sought freedom for slaves; he represents both blacks and whites through Reconstruction, segregation, and the civil rights movement. He represents both America’s worst and best. He is the fulfillment of a dream so elevated that many were unable to even dream it. It was not only a black dream, which became vividly obvious when we saw the variety of faces in the audience at the Inauguration with tears flowing down.
Many people deserve our thanks for bringing America to this day, but today I want to thank just two. But first some background.
For many years I have believed that white America was being unfairly portrayed as racist. Obviously I know that there are many racists in America and around the world, but it often seemed that white Americans were singled out. My opinion was certainly influenced by the fact that I have lived my whole life without ever having anyone I know use the word “ nigger” or say anything derogatory about blacks as a group. I might add that I’ve had the same experience regarding Jews and anti-Semitism and other ethnic/racial groups. This all may not be surprising since I grew up in a Jewish family with many Jewish friends, since tradition holds that Jews are less likely to be racist than other groups.
My personal experience, however, merely provided anecdotal evidence, and by itself was not very persuasive, especially since I grew up during the racial turmoil of the 1950s and 60s. Another influence on my views came from living in the Chicago area most of my life. In my early years I grew up in the integrated community that the Obama’s call home, Hyde Park, and like the Obama girls, I attended the integrated University of Chicago Lab School.
Chicago, despite recently being called the most segregated city in America has had two African-American mayors, and Illinois in the 1970s elected a black Attorney General (the new Senator from Illinois, Roland Burris), and we currently have an immensely popular black Secretary of State, Jesse White. And there are numerous blacks in positions of power in Chicago business and government. (NOTE: I don’t like the term African-American or any other hyphenated American terms, and I only use it out of respect for those who claim it as their identity. I’m aware that while all African-Americans are ‘black’, not all blacks are African-American.)
Two names of Chicago residents say a lot – Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. Jordan was only recently supplanted as corporate America’s favorite marketing spokesman, by Tiger Woods. Oprah’s media empire seems to be fueled in large part by white American women. So, despite on-going racial tensions in parts of Chicago I see our glass as more than half full.
The list of popular black athletes and entertainers has been a long one and has continued to grow for the last three decades. But black achievement on the national political stage has been less impressive. While several black leaders have campaigned for the Democratic nomination none had any chance of succeeding, but I thought this reflected more on the quality of the candidates than on white racism.
The first black leader I thought had a chance to seriously contend for a presidential nomination, Colin Powell, chose not to run. There were rumors that he, or more likely his wife, was scared off by the dangers he would face running in white America. I think everyone understood the grounds for those fears, whether or not they agreed.
When Barack Obama ran for the state Senate in Illinois I admit I didn’t pay much attention. I doubt that many people outside of the mostly black south side of Chicago noticed when he was elected. It certainly wasn’t unusual to elect a black man from Chicago as a city alderman or state legislator, and the whites where he lived tended to be quite progressive. He seemed to me like an upstart when he challenged the incumbent Bobby Rush for the U. S. House and was crushed two to one.
When he won the Democratic nomination for the U. S. Senate after the incumbent had chosen not to run I was mildly surprised and ready to pay attention. But when his Republican opponent Jack Ryan got caught up in a sex scandal and eventually quit the race, guess who got all the publicity and headlines? When the Republicans had to import a black candidate from outside the state as a political sacrificial lamb the campaign became a farce. Despite Obama receiving a record 70% of the vote, it failed as a test of the attitudes and support of white Illinois. It also failed to showcase him in a competitive race.
Yet, almost immediately upon joining the Senate something convinced Barack Obama that he could be a viable candidate for the Presidency against the formidable Clinton team. He believed he could win the support of white America. I didn’t think he was ready, too inexperienced on the national and international stage. What made him believe he could compete? Was it polls, supreme self-confidence, or simple trust in white America? Was it the lessons he had learned being raised by a white mother and white grandparents? Or, perhaps it was all of the above and more.
And what made Michelle Obama agree to the campaign? Clearly, without her support he would not have run. During the campaign she made the unfortunate comment that for the first time in her life she was proud of America (or, something to that effect.) Her comment clearly referred to white America, so did that mean she didn’t really trust America until the positive reaction of whites to her husband’s campaign changed her mind? She certainly wouldn’t have been the only American to feel that way, and probably represented the majority of black America. People were being forced to re-evaluate some of their assumptions about whites.
But clearly from the beginning Barack believed and trusted that whites would support and vote for him in massive numbers. Did he always think he would win? I don’t know, but we do know he thought he had a real chance. We may never know exactly what convinced Barack and Michelle to trust that white America would vote for a young, politically inexperienced (in my opinion), urban, black man. Millions of us are now very grateful that they did.
Regardless of what kind of president he becomes, and I’m hopeful that the combination of great challenges and his wisdom and talent will result in a great presidency reminiscent of President Kennedy’s (but much longer), he has already changed America –white, black, and all others – for the better.
While racism still exists, Barack and Michelle’s faith in white America and the resulting embrace of him by the voters has lightened the weight of slavery and racism on the consciences of white Americans and reduced the burden of suppression on all other Americans. All of us now have the opportunity to see ourselves in a better light as the shadow of racism recedes.
So, with heartfelt gratitude I say to Barack and Michelle – and all those who believed in their dream – THANK YOU!
I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern. My hopes indeed sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.
To John Adams, 1816