Column for 9 November, 2008

Bending the Arc of History


“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

                                                                                                            –Psalms 118:22-24


And so history is made, as America—a nation whose original sin was slavery—elects her first African-American president.  Could any of the men gathered in Philadelphia in 1776, even those like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin opposed to slavery, have foreseen something like this?  Did Abraham Lincoln ever imagine that someday a black man would hold a US Senate seat from Illinois, something he had sought and lost?  That this same man would go on to live in the White House he occupied for four long bloody years?  Lincoln was probably the only politician in America in 1865 capable of truly understanding that America had endured a social and political revolution as much as a military revolution in the Civil War.  For that reason, I like to think that the man whom freed slaves called Father Abraham would be proud and pleased with the election result, though probably somewhat miffed that the first African-American president is a Democrat and not a Republican.  If CNN or MSNBC could reach him for comment, I’m sure he would wryly observe that, having carried the burden of the presidency himself, he did not know whether to congratulate Barack Obama or offer his condolences.  In his victory speech, Obama spoke of bending the “arc of history,” and his election represents yet another wildly improbable event in the wildly improbable history of this nation.  A gang of farmers and shop clerks should never have been able to defeat the British Empire, the greatest military power on Earth at the time.  The Civil War should have permanently torn the nation apart, especially with the Great Powers of Europe all openly supporting the Confederacy.  America survived the temptation of fascism at home during the Great Depression and defeated the threat of fascism abroad during World War Two.  God truly does look after fools, small children and the United States of America.  Does the election of Obama mean that racism is finally dead then?  No, of course not.  It may demonstrate, as I have often said, that when the chips are down class is more important than race, but it will take more than one election to erase the stain of bigotry from this land.  Sadly, white supremacy is an integral part of American history.  African-Americans were ignored in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence and relegated to only 3/5ths of a human being each in the Constitution.  Native Americans, the original and lawful owners of this continent, are referred to only as “merciless savages” in the Declaration and as non-entities in the Constitution, unworthy of inclusion in the census.  Significantly, though, Obama won about the same percentage of the white vote as Bill Clinton did in 1996.  For millions of white voters, particularly those under thirty, race was irrelevant.  They judged Obama on the content of his character, not the color of his skin.  In that respect, at least part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream has come true.  The depth and breadth of Obama’s victory, the biggest electoral and popular vote total of any Democrat in forty-four years, is even more striking considering that racial attitudes forced him to fight with one hand tied behind his back.  Obama’s celebrated coolness and unflappability are due at least in part to the worry (familiar to many blacks) that showing too much emotion, especially anger, would frighten white voters always nervous about the “angry black man” that has been a cultural trope in this country for centuries.  Familiarity, though, is the greatest enemy of racism.  The more time whites spend with non-whites, the more they are apt to realize that their similarities outweigh their differences.  It is for this reason that the US Army went in one generation from one of the most segregated institutions in America (to the extent that even blood supplies were kept separate, lest white soldiers be “contaminated” with “black blood”) to probably the most socially integrated segment of society today.  Over the next four years, white America will become more accustomed to and comfortable with seeing a black man representing the government of the United States at home and overseas.  Gradually, we will see less electoral segregation, as more African-Americans (and Hispanics) are elected from districts where they do not make up the majority.  For that reason alone, it is no exaggeration to say that the election of Barack Obama is the biggest breakthrough in race relations since the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s.  Regardless of what other successes or failures he will have over the next four or eight years, Obama has made a positive and profound impact on the national consciousness just by winning.  The hard work of governing will come soon enough.  America faces a shattered economy, a bloody and seemingly intractable war, and vastly diminished prestige and clout in the world.  Thanks to the incompetence, venality and arrogance of George W. Bush, his successor will be wading into the teeth of a storm.  The work ahead would daunt any man.  Leave that for tomorrow, though.  For today, let us pause to enjoy this latest exciting bend in the arc of history.

Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 8:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The Arc of History has landed in each of our hands, and we will make a masterpiece together.

    Check out our new Artist/President:

    Yes we did.

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