WASHINGTON – There is something dissonant in the general elation about the election of Barak Obama to the presidency. The obvious temptation is to place this epochal of event –the first ever African-American president—within the context of the evolution of the American democracy and in its ability, albeit slowly and often reluctantly, to be at last true to its affirmed declarations about universal freedoms and thus –finally–racial equality. When a representative of the race that had been brought to America in chains is elected to the highest office of the Nation by all, whites and blacks as well as other ethnic groups, this could be taken as the most powerful sign of the end of a painful struggle.
But, while the temptation to interpret this event so optimistically is strong, we should be careful, as the Obama story is far less linear than it may seem. Looking just beneath the surface, we know that the personal history of president elect Barack Obama does not quite fit within the larger civil rights struggle story. He is an African-American, no question about it. In fact, if anything, he is “the real thing”: his father was actually from Africa, as opposed of being an American of remote African ancestry.
However, precisely because Obama’s father came from Africa and therefore he was not a character within the larger African American history of slavery and post slavery, Barack Obama’s experience is markedly different from that of millions of other African Americans. Beyond this, his Kenyan father played almost no role in his upbringing. Obama was raised by a white mother and white grandparents. Besides, his childhood included years abroad, in Indonesia; and then he lived in Hawaii, not Harlem. So, his early political career in Chicago notwithstanding, he is not a typical product of the larger African American community.
No doubt, as a dark skinned American Barack Obama had to confront, at different times, the various mixes of prejudice and discrimination that have victimized and continue to target non whites. Yet, his experience is quite atypical.
Which is to say that, while old barriers have been broken with this historic election, the optimistic narrative that would construe Obama’s success as the final victory within the long civil rights struggle does not really apply here. At least not in full. Barack Obama is not the inner city black kid who managed to overcome the racial obstacles up to the point of reaching the virtually unreachable: becoming President of the United States. This is not to take anything away from him and from his ability to inspire and create a vast coalition of forces that eventually allowed him to win the elections. His personal talent is reflected in his reamarkable victory.
But this is to say that, while this event is epochal, it is not to be construed as the end of the slavery/segregation/discrimination/prejudice story. Of course, it marks an important change. Politics is in large part about emotions conveyed through symbolism. And symbolism does matter in this context. The first ever African American as Chief Executive opens a new chapter in the history of this country. But, again, the very fact that the one who breaks this historic barrier is an atypical representative of the African American community is an illustration of how complicated this whole race issue still is.
One of the perceived strengths of Barack Obama is that he could almost magically side step race during the campaign. The magic is in the fact that he is an African American, with a foreign, exotic name added to the mix; and yet he did not run as an African American, that is to say as the standard bearer of a community with a long history of suffering. He has been defined, perhaps accurately, as “post-racial”. He is a politician who represents epochal change but, by not making too big of a deal about the symbolism of his race, he managed to comfort the previously disenfranchised, without troubling the former (and may be not just former) oppressors.
The election of a post-racial man can help change the dynamics of the race debate. Much progress notwithstanding, until now we have been stuck. We may not have formal segregation any more, but we have the reality of racial separation and lingering prejudice. There are those Blacks who, still claiming the role of aggrieved and oppressed, structure their politics on the explicit or implicit assumption that more should be done to redress past (and present) inequities. And then there are those Whites who claim that the past is past and we should move on. Discrimination is illegal in the United States. Landmark civil rights legislation was passed more than forty years ago. As everybody is supposed to be treated equally now, then there should be no special consideration for anybody, whatever their background.
Of course, neither position is correct. We are still mostly in a gray area in which the weight of the past, while perhaps somewhat lighter, is nonetheless very apparent. While open discrimination is illegal, it is still practiced in hundreds of different ways.
And the picture becomes much more complicated when broad statistics are thrown around. On average, Blacks are poorer and less educated. They are under represented in the best jobs and over represented in the prison population. Their health statistics are worse. But can we take these statistics as evidence of the continuing evil of discrimination, or are there other factors? It is hard to be neutral and objective when trying to interpret these facts.
This is a real problem. Where does discrimination end and where does lack of personal responsibility begin? This is complicated and controversial. And for this reason these issues are rarely discussed dispassionately, as the picture is truly mixed. Some of the under achievement of African Americans is due to lingering discriminatory barriers. Some is due to other issues. The point is that even today much of the debate is about blaming someone else, as opposed to be about finding constructive solutions to layered issues that have multiple causes.
Barack Obama, precisely because his personal story escapes easy classification, and because of the enormous reservoir of confidence in his good faith and his abilities created by the campaign, can help create a less emotional environment for dealing with these old and present wounds and the perceptions that support negative attitudes.
But, having said that, let us not be naïve and portray his election to the presidency as an indication of the end of the racial drama in America. This is an important and significant evolution –and we should all try and make the most of it– without forgetting however that the problem is still stubbornly with us. Misconceptions about the others are difficult and insidious enemies.
The day in which we will be able to judge a person by “the content of their character”, without being swayed by other considerations such as color, is still distant. Maybe less distant now that so much has happened. But it remains a goal; it is not yet an accomplishment.