On November 4, 2008, our country elected Senator Barack Obama President of the United States. Every U.S. presidential election in recent decades gets worldwide news coverage but this one was especially newsworthy because the voters elected a black man to the office. This had never happened before and many of the country’s residents — black and white — thought, given the nation’s racial history and the nation’s racial demographics, electing a black American to the highest office in the land would never happen.
It did happen. On that election night, there was little to no news coverage about the issues of the campaign (Iraq, health insurance, the financial crisis). The focus was on the fact that a racial barrier had just been broken. One also saw videos from around the country of the American people. There were cheers and tears. It was a very emotional evening for the country.
In the wake of this event, I believe there was something more profound that happened; something that has gone virtually unnoticed or commented upon. I wondered about the reaction to the election results, particularly the response of black Americans. Television news showed many crying as it became clear that Obama would be the next president. I felt, though, that there was something behind the tears that went beyond a reaction to a very pleasant surprise or even black pride. It occurred to me that the tears represented something I believe that many black Americans crave but never had until that evening: acceptance. It is like the child who wants approval from his parent and feels no matter what he achieves in life, he will never get it. And then, one day he gets the approval he has so wanted all his life. I suspect that for blacks, despite distrusting whites or disliking whites because of the country’s tragic history of racial oppression, want to be seen as fellow citizens without the tinge of condescension or contempt. In many ways, the election of 2008 was a neon sign, a message from whites to blacks that said: WE REJECT WHITE SUPREMACY.
This symbolism of acceptance was, in my judgment, very moving for many black Americans. It was as though white America finally extended the hand of friendship and sincerely said: welcome.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the euphoria of the election waned, I believe the shock of election set in. There was talk in the media that the election of Obama could mean the beginning of a post-racial America. I don’t believe anyone over six years of age believed that. But it did mean that something in America had changed. I believe that something was identity. Since the beginning of the republic, blacks in this country knew something and that something connected all blacks in this country. The common identity could be summed up as: WE ARE THE PEOPLE WHITE AMERICA HATES. Having this common identity was not necessarily pleasant but it was something that defined black America. Through that identity, a culture developed. That culture produced, among other things, a great literature, music, television shows, and even, stand-up comedy. That identity also produced a psychology. It was a psychology that made blacks unsure of their place in American life. Even after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, there was distrust between the races, and given that blacks were a numerical minority (10% – 15% of the population throughout the 20th century), that distrust made many blacks feel that no matter how much they achieved, they would never be fully accepted as Americans by the white majority.
Suddenly, however, with the 2008 election, it appeared that blacks were fully accepted. However, it was like the dog who, everyday, chases the car on the road and one day, the dog catches the car. The reaction: now what? Nearly all black Americans were very happy that Obama was elected. They were also happy that white Americans helped make this happen. But this historic election also meant that the identity that defined black American was a false one. If blacks are not the people white America hates, then black America would have to ask: who are we?
That would be a difficult question to answer after centuries of having a particular identity. Something would have to change, but how?
It turned out that not much, if anything, had changed. Soon after Barack Obama took office, any perceived slight against the president would interpreted as racist. The rise of the Tea Party and its opposition to liberal policies was interpreted as a negative reaction to the new black president. Even referring to the president as Obama rather than President Obama was interpreted as a sign of racial disrespect.
This calls to mind a scene from the 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption. An elderly prisoner, a seemingly gentle figure, suddenly grabs a fellow prisoner and with a sharp object threatens to kill him. What would make him do this? He got the news that he made parole after a half century of being behind bars. Turns out, oddly enough, he did not want to leave prison. The thought of being on the outside was frightening; he would rather be convicted of another crime than to be set free. After so many years behind bars, he had grown quite accustomed to prison life and freedom was of no interest to him.
Barack Obama’s election was documented proof that race was no longer a barrier in American life. It was proof that black Americans were, in fact, free — and had been for some time. This shock caused black America to figuratively rebuild the prison of racial oppression that they had lived under, even if it racial oppression was little to non-existent. We see this most notably in the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement began in the middle of Obama’s second term and it was borne out of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown, among other things, attacked a police officer and the officer shot and killed him. This episode was understood as “proof” that police brutality was alive and well in America and this brutality had its primary focus on young, unarmed black Americans. The fact that Brown attacked the officer and the shooting was in self-defense did not matter. Brown was made a martyr. The level of racism in this country, especially racial violence, has dropped so dramatically in the last 50 years, many blacks, with the help of the media, must manufacture racism in situations where none exists. The existence of significant amounts of racism, real or imagined, is the prison in which blacks are accustomed.
I have written this piece in response to an op-ed, “What else do we need to believe racism exists?” Here is the piece. http://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/editorials/article206517019.html
For one thing, I know of no one who believes racism does not exist, so I do not know who the author’s intended audience is. She attributes all inequities between blacks and whites, from school discipline to household income, to racism. She does not allow for the fact that culture may have a little (or a lot) to do with racially disparate outcomes. There are loads of opportunities for all Americans in this country. Since the 1960s, through civil rights laws, affirmative action, diversity outreach, and just plain good manners, black Americans can fully participate in American life. If you have any doubts about that, ask the nation’s 44th chief executive, President Barack Obama. The author clings to the racism excuse in much the same way the Peanuts character, Linus, clings to his security blanket. The author lives in that prison of racial oppression; if she did not contribute to its construction, she certainly helps to maintain it.