Historic, Unprecedented Change

Tonight the United States elected the first African American  president, and with it voted for historic, unprecedented change.  It is a remarkable moment.   I was in Harlem when the news broadcast on the jumbotron announced that Barack Obama was the 44th President.  It’s difficult to find the words to convey the exhiliration and joy at this news (image: mine).  The streets of Harlem were like Mardi Gras, people openly wept, danced and embraced strangers (including me).   Cars passing on the street honked their horns as drivers shouted “O-bam-a!” out the window.   Here’s Adam Nagourney’s take on the election tonight writing for the New York Times’ :

Mr. Obama’s election amounted to a national catharsis — a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies, and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for a change in the direction and the tone of the country. But it was just as much a strikingly symbolic moment in the evolution of the nation’s fraught racial history, a breakthrough that would have seemed unthinkable just two years ago.

Unthinkable indeed, and I think you could see that on any number of faces, including Jesse Jackson’s as he – and many others of us – wept at the realization of Obama’s achievement.  And, Nagourney gets it right when he calls it a “strikingly symbolic moment” in the “nation’s fraught racial history.”    My hope tonight is that this marks the beginning of a new era.

The Meaning of Wright in the Obama Campaign

What does it mean that white Americans are (apparently) willing to elect Barack Obama, a black politician, but still unwilling to engage the discourse of race and discuss continued, un-equalized race relations between people of color and whites and the long, on-going history of white racism in America? How is this socio-psychological paradox explained?

At the center of this paradox of race and politics is Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright (image from RobinDude via Flickr). I agree with Joe that Wright is “actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present.” But I would stress that Wright’s demonization and complete marginalization, not just by mainstream media and Republican circles, but also by Obama and the Democratic party, demonstrates a much deeper problem in American race relations and in ways that Americans understand and deal with the ‘race problem.’ Obama’s distancing himself from Wright and categorical condemnation of Wright’s social philosophies about American government was clearly stated. One hopes this was only a temporary, strategic political move to reach a powerful office (wouldn’t be the first time a politician momentarily masked their ideological position to win an election) and that, in fact, Obama will champion policies that amend the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of blacks and other nonwhite minorities.

Whatever is behind Obama’s decision to sever his relationship with Wright, the fact remains that he was forced to denunciate Wright and suppress Wright’s message about the history of white racism in order to maintain political viability in American politics, illustrating that mainstream America is not yet willing to seriously address the murky, taboo issue of race. As Obama’s society-sanctioned sacrifice of Wright demonstrates, both republicans and democrats—Fox News and MSNBC—and the American public at large call for Obama to disassociate with and denounce Wright’s unsettling message.

The exclusion of Wright’s discourse about race is the exclusion of truth about US history and social reality. This exclusion is a cowardly avoidance of moral responsibility and signals that whites wish to maintain their privilege and unfair advantages—white supremacy—in the social world. Sadly, most white Americans—mainstream America—ignorantly discount the harsh realities of race in America observed in the critical perspectives of those who are racially oppressed. Unlike blacks and other nonwhite minority groups, whites fail to acknowledge the institutional and systemic nature of white racism, possibly because white racism is a system that greatly benefits the very existence and life chances of most whites.

Does Obama’s ascendancy in American politics demonstrate that America has come a long way in matters of race, the dominant narrative portrayed in newspapers and news shows? The silencing of Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright would reveal not. Nevertheless, white Americans will now loudly pat themselves on the back and claim that Obama’s political popularity signifies that racism is dead, overlooking Wright’s description of the deeply embedded institutional racism that still grips the politics, economics, culture and social world of Americans, failing to ponder questions like: how many black US Senators are there now, how many black Fortune 500 CEOs, what is the face of the nightly news anchorman, who is average Joe the Plumber?

~ Sean Elias, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Texas A&M University
Lecturer, Sociology, Southern Methodist University


“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others. (image source)

“So our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the southern states and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of blood-thirsty mobs into calculated good deeds of orderly citizens. Give us the ballot and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will, and send to the sacred halls of Congressmen who will not sign a Southern Manifesto, because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice. Give us the ballot and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will “do justly and love mercy,” and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the divine. Give us the ballot and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May 17, 1954.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr., “Give us the Ballot” Speech