Promises and Accountability: Where Do We Go From Here?
November 5, 2008
Barack Hussein Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States of America on Tuesday, November 4, 2008. Wow, Number 44 is Black. This is the highest of black firsts this country has ever witnessed. This moment is bursting with promise.
President-Elect Obama has made a tremendous amount of promises for change on his way to the top seat in America. Now it is time for us to make some promises; and keep them. What do we promise to do? We’ve heard from Obama for nearly two years of campaigning, now what are we going to do? What commitments are we courageous enough to make? What is the work this moment challenges us to do?
What does this victory mean for African Americans and People of Color? At the very least, it means that we can now point to the White House and say: “a Black family lives there.” One of us. And that is saying a lot considering the racist history of this country and the restrictions placed on Black lives throughout much of that history. This is indeed a moment to be proud of. My great-uncle, 80-years young, was the first person I called once the West coast results came in last night. After taking L’s (losses) for eight decades, he finally got a chance to feel like he won one. To use a baseball analogy, it’s as if he was shut out for a lifetime and finally scored. Only instead of eight innings, it’s been eight decades for him. This may be a symbolic victory for some, but a victory no less, says my uncle.
Obama scored big, redrawing the political map in the process. Changing the way that campaign funds are raised and utilizing the Internet to a masterful degree; he is a game changer. No more of the same, whether you’re thinking of the Bush regime or whether you’re talking about racism. And I’m not arguing here that Obama’s victory is post-racial in any way. No. Race and racism are woven into the very fabric of the nation. I am not arguing for transcendence where race no longer matters, I am arguing for a critical engagement with the racial history of the nation and a commitment to human principles of dignity and respect. Put bluntly, the xenophobia and hostility toward Black life has to stop. Does a black family in the White House change the day-to-day lived experiences of Black people?
People will say that now we can’t talk about race in the same way. In fact, they’ve already been saying it. That race is meaningless now that the top executive in the country is a Black man. This is usually told to Black people; “there can be no more racial grievances,” I heard someone say. No more talk of victimization, the refrain goes.
We rarely if ever demand the same of the folks who were “still undecided” on the eve of the election. Even white pollsters knew it was Obama’s blackness that held many from getting behind the Democratic candidate. What bothers me is that we don’t demand that the “Joe-the-plumber” types of the country get up off of their fear, hatred and disgust of Black people, acknowledge and rid themselves of racism, and adapt progressive social ideals. No, we hear: “no more complaining, Black folk, your man’s in office.” To the Joe’s of the country, though, Obama says last night “I’m your President, too.” I believe he was speaking to the McCain crowd, the damn near monochromatic gathering in Phoenix that booed him when he offered his congratulations to Obama. It’s not the racial grievances that Black folk complain about that need to be ignored and transcended, but rather the racial anxieties some whites hold towards black people and the structures that perpetuate racist practices (think: foreclosure crisis) that is need of attention and repair. But, like I said, that demand is rarely heard. Rest assured, the work to end racism and white supremacy did not end at the ballot box.
The only way that we can transcend race is by aggressively confronting racism.
Of course, we have issues like the economy, the environment, healthcare and, let me not forget, national security, that affect all Americans, albeit in different ways. But when it comes to race all we need to think of are the many social issues plaguing Black folk here in the U.S. to know that we have still a long way to go. The inability to acknowledge the centrality of race and the function of racism in this nation is our greatest blind spot. For example, what about the rates of incarceration that the Black community has suffered since the 1980s? Last I checked black women are four times more likely than white women to be incarcerated. And black males are five times more likely to be incarcerated than are white males, and 5.3 million are disenfranchised as a result of incarceration. What about the disparity in quality education? Indeed, this latter issue was central to the debates this campaign season. What about unemployment? What about the high occurrence of HIV and AIDS in our communities? This is not meant to rain on the hope parade, but to keep our struggle in full view. Can we stay committed to doing the work necessary to create the changes we envision? Barack Obama does indeed inspire hope. And we should embrace this moment. But this is not the end of race or racism in America.
Though I know that to be true, I believe that honoring the commitments and promises we make to ourselves and to each other, while holding Obama and his administration accountable for the numerous promises he pronounced on his way to the top (though he will no doubt have to revisit and abandon a few of them), is a way towards real change. Who knows the type of world we are going to create should we do so. President-Elect Obama has his work cut out for him, no doubt. If November 4th 2008 signals anything, it might be that the opportunity to create something different and new is upon us. The door has been pushed open, now it’s time to run through it.