As he stepped onstage in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night, Barack Obama was already transformed from candidate to president. On display was his genius, the genius of leadership: He eloquently named the terrible situation — “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century” — then instilled the courage to overcome it. The president-elect had nixed the planned fireworks. But he could not squelch his optimism.
“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep,” he declared. “But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”
Personal temperament alone cannot account for Obama’s combination of impatient ambition and imperturbable calm, self-confidence and humility. Rather, these qualities signal an understanding of himself as part of something bigger than the personal. He arrived in this place, he acknowledged in his speech on race, in the river of history, carried by a social movement of “Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part — through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk — to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
“Yes we can”: The operative word is we.
This comes as a huge relief after eight years of a regime that refused the lessons of history because it believed itself directed by supernatural forces and transhistorical values — our “good” against their “evil.” This delusion was embodied in the doctrine of the “unitary executive.” It emerged from the president’s mouth in an almost daily utterance: “I am confident.”
The operative word was I.
The Obama election — and, in no small part, the economic crisis — takes a wrecking ball to the Ownership Society, which defined patriotism as personal consumption and citizenship as commitment to one’s own home and family. The fresh air that rushes in now is the conviction that personal responsibility is not antithetical to collective obligation — realized ultimately in government — and that personal reward comes not from getting mine but from creating ours.
The decisive triumph of unity over isolation and bigotry rendered even more dispiriting the passage of anti-gay-marriage propositions in California, Florida and Arizona, along with a measure in Arkansas, clearly aimed at gays and lesbians, prohibiting unmarried couples from adopting children or serving as foster parents.
The victory of these homophobic measures was bad enough, but almost equally dismaying was the reaction from the media and many white same-sex marriage proponents: Blame African Americans. "Proposition 8 Exit Poll: Whites oppose, blacks support, Latinos divided, the Los Angeles Times posted on November 4, before all the data were in. Because African Americans had come out in huge numbers to vote for the Democratic candidate, the press immediately christened it the Obama Effect.
Resentment bloodied the gay blogosphere. “I’m not sure what to do with this,” wrote the sex columnist Dan Savage in a typical post. “I’m thrilled that we’ve just elected our first African-American president. I wept last night. I wept reading the papers this morning. But I can’t help but feeling hurt that the love and support aren’t mutual.
“I do know this, though: I’m done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there — and they’re out there, and I think they’re scum — are a bigger problem for African Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color.”
A handful? Huge numbers? As the African-American lesbian blogger Lainad put it, “Oh, please.”
The initial reports turned out to be wrong. In the end, polls showed the only race-sex group that did not support Prop. 8 was white women, who came out against it 53 to 47. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of African-Americans voted yes, across income, education, age and sex. African American churchgoers — who voted, like other regular churchgoers, overwhelmingly in favor — were encouraged by their pastors, who in turn were lobbied by the proposition’s promoters, largely white groups not generally known for their alliances with people of color.
The proponents also lied. A slick flier produced by Yes on 8 and mailed to thousands of African-American households the weekend before election day featured a photograph of Obama, wedding band on prominent display, with Michelle laughing in the background. The large-type quote read: “I’m not in favor of gay marriage.”
In fact, both Obama and Biden oppose gay marriage and have said so plainly. But both have also stated their support for extending civil rights of partnership to all, and both explicitly opposed Prop. 8. They reiterated that opposition after the propaganda went out.
I’m not going to excuse anyone who cast a ballot for homophobia, no matter what the reason. And, while I’m at it, I’m not going to excuse Obama for his socially conservative positions and decisions, including sharing a stage with mega-evangelist Rick Warren, a star on the Christian gay-conversion circuit.
Still, blacks made up just 6 percent of California voters. Even 70 percent of 6 percent is not enough to pass anything. Why is Prop. 8 their fault?
As DailyKos opined, fingerpointing will get us nowhere.
The answer is not the cloakroom deal making suggested by Dan Savage: I supported “your” guy, so you should get behind “my” issue.
The answer is solidarity.
In his speech on race, Obama asked his black sisters and brothers to “[bind] our particular grievances . . . to the larger aspirations of all Americans: the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family.” On election night, the president-elect broadened that circle of solidarity, calling in “young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled.” It may be the first time a president has pronounced the word gay, with respect and fellowship, in public.
If it was rare to hear such a rainbow-coalition recitation from Obama — whose own story belies the simplicity of any one of those labels — it is not because he is the first “post-identity-politics” candidate or “post-racial” black politician, as many pundits have dubbed him. (Apparently only politicians of color have to be either “racial” or not.) Read his books and you will discover a man struggling to embrace the African-American heritage that was, until his adulthood, mainly a matter of genes.
Rather, as Beck Young, a Barnard women’s studies professor, pointed out, Obama simply does not see race or racism primarily as a personal matter — and that is the only way the pundits, especially the white Republican ones, can see it. Obama is interested in institutionalized inequality. And, though he constantly talked about the middle class, the poor recognized in his rhetoric something no one dared name, except as a smear: class struggle. This does not make Obama pre-, post- or extra-identity politics. It makes his campaign, like Martin Luther King’s, a movement for more than civil rights: a movement for justice.
Ironically, the campaign that ran away from race and only surreptitiously allied itself with the left has moved the left’s antiracist politics from the margins to the mainstream. I suspect President Obama will have more trouble dealing with the left part than the antiracist part.
But the mainstream was already moving. Young and first-time voters cast their ballots for Obama two to one. In California, they opposed Proposition 8 by the same margin. Minorities who had voted Republican voted Democratic in significant numbers, and minorities will soon constitute a majority of the electorate. As the main protagonist of American politics, Joe the Plumber, RIP.
If some racial minorities do not yet recognize sexual minorities as legitimate members of the polity, then there is much work to be done. “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change,” declared the president-elect. He exhorted Americans to “summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to . . . look after not only ourselves but each other.”
Call it patriotism. Call it solidarity. It is discombobulating to contemplate the two entwined. Still, like Michelle Obama, this is the first time in my adult life I have felt proud of my country. And when I look at the beautiful face of the first Kansan-Kenyan president, that pride moves me to relinquish blame and resolve anew to look after my fellow Americans — even those who are not yet ready to look after me and mine.