This essay was originally published by WireTap magazine.
November 4, 2008
Last week, hundreds of Bay Area high school students walked out of class to bring attention to one of the most overlooked issues in the presidential campaign: immigration. They marched through the rain to demand a stop to increasing numbers of raids on undocumented workers and families. Some painted their faces to commemorate dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) and all those who have lost their lives at the hands of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (
) and border patrols. Their message was clear: immigration is a youth issue.
Their efforts highlight a crucial domestic and international issue President Barack Obama’s Administration will have to confront. They also draw attention to the ways young folks are organizing at a grassroots level against issues that reach across generational boundaries.
I’m not too much older than those high school students. At 23, the only Presidential administration I’ve really known in my lifetime has been led by George W. Bush. I was born during the Reagan years and developed a political consciousness during the Bush era, so it’s hard for me to imagine a presidential administration that, for the most part, works to positively engage issues that affect the lives of people of color. As young folks, we’ve come of age in a post-9/11 society filled with violent patriotism and racist nationalism.
After voting in my first Presidential election, George Bush and his Republican party operatives had won another hotly contested Presidential election, even after losing the popular vote, and the world seemed ominously silent. There were no mass protests, no student walkouts and no challenges in the Supreme Court. Everyone around me seemed deflated.
From there, I focused on community organizing, and felt that we were often battling the failures of electoral politics. I worked with working-class people of color from Oakland and the Bronx and was often frustrated at the disconnect between the community and Capitol Hill. Eight years ago, George W. Bush won his election on an educational reform platform. Yet, years later, young people at Sistas and Brothas United, a youth-led organization in the Bronx, were still fighting city officials in order to open a community-based leadership academy. After all, how could a system built on serving the interests of white landowning straight Christian men affectively and honestly serve the folks around me?
That reality stuck with me well into the primaries. It wasn’t until I traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Denver that I started to have faith that we were headed in the right direction. There seemed to be a good number of regular folks and seasoned political vets. I was particularly inspired by a group of elderly black women from New York who were first-time delegates. They campaigned hard and the entire week proudly wore their civic engagement. I was among 80,000 people screaming for change and reclaiming our right to the democratic process. For the first time, I actually felt like I had a place in this country’s politics.
Now, I’m inspired. Even though I voted early two weeks ago, I woke up before dawn to make sure my friends got to the polls early. I stood in line at a small local precinct at an Oakland, Calif. Elementary school and saw eager folks of all ages lined up to cast their ballots. Elderly black men and women stood with their canes greeted by enthusiastic poll workers and volunteers while young folks like me stood in line looking tired, but ready.
The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States is an absurdly exciting historical moment. I can’t get over the fact that for the first time in my life, I can actually be proud to call someone my president.
The most amazing part of Obama’s campaign wasn’t so much the message as it was the messengers. His message of unity and bipartisanship inspired millions across party lines. He was able to make anti-establishment grassroots folks have faith that for once, electoral politics could work in favor of the people. Celebrities like Rosario Dawson and rapper Jay Z campaigned hard, held free concerts and toured the nation to inspire the hip-hop generation to vote. Young independent artists created mini fashion empires inspired by Obama, and released mixtapes. Even Sportscenter has been echoing the GOTV cry, making cheesy sports puns to remind voters to get to the polls.
While it’s important to acknowledge the historical importance of Obama’s election, it’s also crucial to keep in mind that it’s just the first step in having a true democracy. There’s much more work to be done and many more victories to fight for. One election, one four-year administration, and even a potential 30-year Democratic majority will not magically cure 400 years of racialized and gendered economic and physical terrorism on communities of color in this country.
Having a black family in the White House is a great reformist step to systemic inequality, but it doesn’t erase the fact that most queer folks can’t legally get married and moreover, that the institution of marriage holds privilege over single mothers and non-traditional unions.
But we have to start somewhere. And this is a monumental first step.
As we enter a new administration in a new historical moment led by the promise of this country’s first black president, it’s important to heed the lessons that made his campaign so successful. Mass organizing efforts that include people at all levels–grassroots, students and electoral–don’t just make good headlines. They develop leaders and inspire a sense of purpose in folks who may feel alienated by the system.
Furthermore, the election of the nation’s first black president should not be seen as an excuse to say we’re “post racial.” Instead, it provides an opportunity to foreground race in our national discussions of policies.
If we’re lucky, the young people who have helped redefine and energize this movement will live long enough so that a black president won’t be such an anomaly. But, for now, I’m going to sit back and celebrate.
Jamilah King is the associate editor of WireTap.