Obama: A Great Black Victory?
Barack Obama’s victory has resulted in a lot of poorly reasoned commentary. There are many who, on the strength of two bad elections, declare the Republican party extinct and conservatism dead. Then there are those who declare that Obama’s 52-46 win (with every possible political wind behind him) a resounding mandate for Obama’s liberal policies. And there is a great deal of overblown praise of Obama’s seemingly limitless political savvy and leadership strength. But unquestionably, the most annoying meme is the idea that America has now, with Obama’s win, officially transcended racial divisions. This idea manages to be both obviously wrong and nauseatingly conceited.
Proponents of this view, which is found on both the left and right, see America’s acceptance of Barack Obama as a sign that we have finally moved past race, and that doing so is a major historical event and a convincing sign of American virtue. Norah Vincent wrote in the LA Times that “the world is actually proud of us too, and more than a little surprised. It didn't think we had it in us. To tell you the truth, neither did I”. Peggy Noonan gushed that “[Obama] confounded history to get [the presidency]. What a thing this is going to be to see. What luck to observe it.”
The fact that America has elected a black president is an exhibition of its relative color-blindness, at least compared to a generation ago, but is hardly historically significant and certainly not surprising.
Hollywood has shown black presidents for years. In “The Man”, James Earl Jones played a black president, as did Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact.” “24” character David Palmer was a very popular fictional black president, at least until he was assassinated (on the show, of course, not in real life).
And in real life, Colin Powell probably could have run for the presidency on either party’s ticket in 1996. He wasn’t guaranteed a victory, of course, but his impressive poll support was clear evidence that wide swathes of America were open to the idea of a black man running for president. For that matter, the intensely polarizing Jesse Jackson ran respectable presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Obama’s victory may be a victory for race relations—but it is about as surprising as hearing of a Catholic winning an election in Utah.
And not to rain on anyone’s parade, but the fact that a black man has become president of the United States is historically significant only if one takes a relentlessly Amerocentric view of history. Blacks were treated horribly in America—first as slaves, then under Jim Crow. But compared to other historical turnarounds, the liberation of black society isn’t particularly remarkable. Jews are now accepted in Germany. India’s people peacefully overthrew their British rulers and set up a fairly functioning democracy. Japan managed to check its imperialistic impulses and is now allies with the very nations it attempted to conquer seventy years ago. Black America has come a long way—but compared to the above examples, its story isn’t particularly extraordinary.
And even if one thinks it is comparable, it’s worth noting that America is still de facto segregated. Blacks are now allowed to vote, to send their children to school wherever they like, and to assemble without fear. Whites, at least the vast majority, no longer fear or worry about blacks. But it’s rare to see blacks and whites living together. Schools are mostly separated into white and black schools. White and black youth culture is different (though there is some crossover between the two cultures, whites tend to listen to pop or country music, whiles black seem to prefer hip-hop).
Black and whites don’t intermarry to any significant degree. When going to any young people’s hangout, whites and blacks usually stay apart.
(I can’t speak from personal experience, but it would be interesting to compare racial attitudes in America and a European country, such as England. According to some articles I’ve seen, racial attitudes over there are much more relaxed. That may be true—they couldn’t be much less relaxed than they are here—but I can’t think of any prominent European politicians, or any other influential characters, of color).
Racist slurs are considered unacceptable, and any racial prejudice is the one sin that is considered unforgivable. White people, at least the ones I know, aren’t motivated by racial dislike—they simply don’t seem to know many black people. And the blacks I know are the same way—they don’t dislike whites, they simply don’t seem to have much in common with them.
I can’t say why the relationship between whites and blacks isn’t closer, except that I doubt it is solely due to racial tension. But our society is still effectively segregated today, and Americans might want to hold off the self-congratulations of their tolerance and sensitivity until it isn’t.