The Black President (Part 2)

After making my last post I’ve had a little time to think and I’d like to expand on something that I don’t think I was clear about.

I understand the huge significance of having a black president.What’s most exciting to me about it is that Obama’s race did not put off enough voters to lose him the election.His victory makes a strong statement that for huge numbers of the American people, race was not a deciding factor and that they were able to either overlook his race or that his race was not an issue for them in the first place.People were able to make a more substantive decision.Obama did lose the white vote by 12 percentage points but so did Al Gore in 2000 (John Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points in 2004).Having a black man as president and a black family in the White House will also force people to rethink stereotypes and conceptions of what it means to be black and to be American.Yesterday, not one but two random white women gave me a “Hi.How are you?” as we passed each other on the street.That rarely happens once in a day, let alone twice.I doubt that they thought, “Hey, Barack Obama is a black man.He’s the president.I voted for him.Maybe not all black men are threats.I guess I can start being friendly to black men on the street now.”But I felt that they were enthused about Obama’s win and that enthusiasm can bring down social barriers.Finally, I appreciate how powerful it is, especially for black youth, to look and see a black man in the nation’s highest office.It sends the message that it is possible; it can be done.His win gives us new hope and a new sense of empowerment that we can achieve.

What worries me is that Obama’s victory is being cast in the light of a civil rights victory.To be sure, this election never could have happened had it not been for the progress that was made in the Civil Rights Era.Obama has stepped through the door that others before him opened through years of struggle and sacrifice.But that’s all that he has done; stepped through the door.He has not opened any new doors; at least not in the way that civil rights and black power leaders of the past did.In an interview yesterday, Manning Marable said that “Obama represents…a group of kind of race-neutral African American leadership, that includes Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who are not race-based politicians, who appeal directly to whites, who try to sidestep issues of race, who are pragmatists, ideologically more centrist than the liberal politicians who emerged out of the civil rights and black freedom struggle of the 1960s and ’70s.”

I think that a lot of this excitement about Obama is rooted in a confusion between goals and strategies.For example, back in the day, integrating schools was seen as a strategy, not a goal.Black people wanted to improve their living conditions and some saw integration as a way to do that.Sitting in the same room with white people was not the goal.The goal was to learn something useful that could be applied in a way that would improve people’s lives.Another strategy was to try and get black people elected to public office.But just having a black person in office was not the goal; the goal was for that person to use the power that came with that position and work to improve people’s living conditions.Somewhere along the line we lost track of our goals and were left only with our strategies.When we cheer for Barack Obama, are we cheering that he has accomplished a great feat or that he is in the position to accomplish more?Maybe it’s both but I’m afraid that many people are only concerned with the former.

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