On November 4, the voters gave a resounding, nearly deafening answer to the needling question of pundits who have spent the past two years asking, Is America ready for a black President?
Yes, it is.
Of course, it is possible to overstate the significance of this moment for the condition of black Americans. But it is not possible to overstate its sweetness–and the pure, unadulterated joy that has come from tasting it. The satisfaction is all the greater because three states of the former Confederacy–its erstwhile capital, Virginia, Florida and, it appears, North Carolina–will give their electoral votes to a black man. The word “union” seems stronger and more apt than ever.
Of the some 40 million white Americans who voted for Barack Obama, many no doubt set aside their racial prejudices for the sake of their economic future; many others, however, actively chose to renounce them, and the youngest cohort of voters, who voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, showed they are accustomed to and enthusiastic about a genuinely multiracial society in a way no previous generation has been. Talk of Obama as a “postracial” candidate was always misplaced, but his election does bring us closer to the dream articulated by so many black leaders, all the way back to Frederick Douglass, of a society that has moved beyond race not because racism is ignored but because there is greater opportunity and equality.
This election certainly doesn’t mean racism is dead. Obama was an extraordinary candidate with enormous political talents running in a climate warm to Democrats, against the candidate of a party whose incumbent president boasts an approval rating of less than 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded of any American president. Those were Obama’s built-in advantages. His blackness (and his “funny name”) was something he had to overcome, and he did so brilliantly. In the end, his unique promise of racial reconciliation–from a man whose very existence, whose very blood, testifies to its possibility–worked.
People came together, even in Republican strongholds like Indiana and Virginia, narrowly but clearly rejecting the McCain/Palin message about Obama’s purported terrorist connections and his alleged detachment from the “pro-America” parts of the country. John McCain was gracious in defeat, but nonetheless it is worth relishing the failure of his campaign’s basest tactics, a veritable garage sale of musty culture-war tropes: resentment of “elitists” and fears about race (Nixon); hostility toward issues and a heavy reliance on personality (Reagan); and blatant, almost caricatured appeals to reactionary populism and social conservatives (George W. Bush). That these maneuvers now appear to have backfired heralds a new beginning in American politics. The culture war may not be over, but conservatives must face the fact that over the long term they cannot win it.