As the 2008 Democratic primary season ends with Barack Obama as the presumptive nominee, I want to reflect back on some of the political themes, realities, and pundit theories that have shaped and invigorated the United States of America over the last year. Some could say citizens of this nation faced three major questions leading to the Democratic nomination. Americans faced the heart of blackness in Senator Obama, a strong and politically shrewd woman in Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the love and hate relationship with her husband, the former United States President Bill Clinton. Between these two talented senators, Americans also had to face the question of religion in the antics of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Thus, Americans have had to ask themselves serious questions about their attachments to race, religion, and what the Oval Office should stand for in a time of economic and environmental crisis as well as an unpopular war.
Commentators of all stripes have heralded this Democratic Primary as the fulfillment of democracy’s promise. The primary has claimed a new generation of youth, especially white students from the halls of Columbia to the spacious green grounds of the Claremont Colleges, who have grown weary of their hollow privilege, power, and racial divisions. Perhaps more impressive is the sudden maturity and awareness black America is displaying in weighing in on issues important to their community and to the country. The academically inclined would ponder the possibility that the US is finally ready, after 232 years, to be the light of democracy it has claimed it would be since 1776. As much as I would love to join the “Yes We Can” bandwagon, I suggest that commentators, students, and black Americans take a step back and truly assess the political realities flowing from Senators, US Representatives, and even some Republicans regarding Barack Obama. Admittedly, I have seen people of all races, ages, and class groups speak earnestly about what Senator Obama as president could possibly represent. People have voiced such excitement about the senator even when he asks Americans to do the one thing that the sixties and the rise of Republicans has reminded all citizens that America has a hard time doing: change.
The word change reminds me of an important twentieth-century black novelist and essayist James Baldwin in The Evidence of Things Unseen (1985). Laws can be changed and treaties can be signed, but can US citizens really put in the necessary work required to really change? Baldwin concluded that, except for the few, the evidence of change is not visible. Senator Obama’s bid to be the president of the United States has caught Americans in a perfect storm of post-racial aspirations and public sphere inertia. Americans seemed to be unable to speak and act truthfully within one American public without the residue that still exists in the old American divisive republicthe ever-present racial divide between black and white. It appears that the roots of a 262 year old racialized society still run too deep. We must remember that black Americans fought and celebrated along with white citizens in the Revolutionary War and Civil War and, yet, freedom did not ring true for all. Another example is the incredible coalition of black, Jewish, and white Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. When the laws were changed, American citizens slipped back into the comforts of their homes, suburbs, jobs, schools, and clubs and the U.S.A. became two nations again splintered not only by race, but racial class groups as well.
The evidence of the racial past reviving itself is revealed in how the democratic primary competition has ended. More and more, what seemed to have been a cohesive union of black people, white intellectuals, the working poor, college students, and people fed up with the Bush administration slowly revealed the U.S.A.’s inescapable racial divide. Consider for a moment the differences between caucus voting patterns and poll booth voting patterns. In caucuses people voted openly, and Senator Obama generally came out ahead. Perhaps in a caucus room, Senator Obama pulls at the souls of Americans who are publicly forced to reckon with history denied and commonly unspoken in the public arena of presidential politics. In a caucus, people must make a public profession and hope that GOD does not confront them with questions about blackness when they reach the pearly gates of heaven. Imagine going to hell because of one’s treatment of or for looking silently away from the treatment of black people. I am talking about the treatment of people who brought so much comfort as slaves and served as scapegoats in bad times after integration. I am writing of the same people who were crucified by Affirmative Action except for the careers it built for men such as Ward Connerly and Shelby Steele. Perhaps, one would answer GOD by saying they were allowed to sing, dance, and contribute spirituals, blues, rock, soul, jazz, pop music, and hip hop?
What the Democratic primary revealed instead was that there is still a major divide between private and public. Unlike the caucuses, in the primaries, people retreat to the privacy of the voting booth. In that voting booth Americans start to waiver, and differences, such as race, religion, and class, still matter in the U.S.A. The race-baiting tactics of the Clinton campaign revealed a voting booth contrast. President Clinton’s rhetoric in the South Carolina Primary parted the thin cohesive sheen of the Democratic Party when he reminded the country that Obama would win South Carolina mainly because he was black and not on his impressive credentials. Surely, Senator Obama had an upper hand in the state but he still had to win black and white voters who were just getting to know him. Moreover, the problem with the former President’s statement was that he was reminding white voters around the country to be aware of those black people. It has never failed in the U.S.A. that when masses of black people start getting energized about something, other people assume it means something is being taking away from white America. Like clockwork after South Carolina, it seems most white people started pursuing the more familiar and more comfortable racial path regardless of the cost to the country, American youth, and the world. The U.S.A. is starting to resemble the world that Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992) and John Hope Franklin’s The Color Line: Legacy for the Twenty-First Century (1993) warned against in the last decade.
Americans have been given a great opportunity in the nomination of Senator Obama. He has managed something unique, promising, and infrequently remarked upon. He broke the coalition of elder black politicians and pariahs who have fed the flames of race baiting and hatred over the last century. Let me be clear on this point: I understand that many black elders lived through some of the worst aspects of a racist system, like being called a nigger and being treated as second-class citizens with second-class toys and parks because a segment of their own country felt and voiced that they were somehow less than human. When US Representative John Lewis, a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement, looked into his heart and saw that the people he represented supported Senator Obama with excitement and record numbers of votes, Rep. Lewis switched his support from Senator Clinton. From city to city and state to state, politicians started listening to their constituents. The promises made by black politicians who were looking for gains under the Clinton regime gave way. Black Americans and Senator Obama broke the black politics of the past and showed that they would stand up to the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons.
Black America gave the U.S.A. an opportunity to move beyond race. However, Senator Clinton’s campaign, after a succession of losses in the South, decided that their best chance was to play the race card. The Clintons, who were the pearls of black Americans’ hearts, asked the pivotal question. Can Americans seriously be considering a black man over the storied house of Clinton? Suddenly, pundits, youth, black and white Americans started to rehash the stories of yesterday. Racial divisions and classism returned. And, of course, one can purchase the new book by Shelby Steele, titled A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win (2008), fresh off the press as he continues to profit on the racial divide.
Regardless of what the November elections will teach Americans about themselves, Senator Obama’s triumph as the presumptive nominee is incredible. But, my heart tells me that that the evidence of change is still hidden behind the voting booth. Will the United States finally live up to its founding creed of liberty for all? White Americans hold the answer, but they will only reveal it behind the closed door of the voting booth. In the U.S.A. and around the world, people seem to feel as if something amazing is happening in America. I stand firm on James Baldwin’s sentiment of the evidence of things unseen. There will be no post-racial America and people will continue to say the right thing in public and do the race thing in private. I just hope that white America does something good for itself and not for black Americans. Exorcising the ghosts of the past might improve the US economy, education, and foreign relations. We, the people of the Unites States of America, run our own government and if Senator Obama cannot deliver the changes the country desperately needs after the Bush Administration then we can always change again. Yes we can!