Cause For Caution

by Nathan Bruschi | 11/24/08 4:03am

We waited with the rest of the world, glued to a muted television in one of Barcelona's English pubs, growing hoarse from yelling at Wolf Blitzer. The place was packed with students, as well as Spaniards, Britons and Belgians -- all concerned citizens. I'd like to report that we stayed up on election night until the tipping point, but the results were slow in coming and our first class on Wednesday was early. I had spent the preceding weeks incessantly checking polling data and was able to sleep confident in my calculations, having found eight ways Obama could win and only one in which he could lose.

When I awoke a couple of hours later greeted by the inevitable outcome, I was happy. Everyone in Spain appeared a little more lighthearted: The smiles of passers-by came a little quicker, the normally overbearing librarians seemed a little more relaxed. My professors couldn't stop talking about it in rushed and excited Spanish. One even thanked us for electing Obama.

My tears eventually found me that evening. My host mother had taken a break from watching dubbed versions of "Murder, She Wrote" to put on the nightly newscast. They were showing a video of the crowds at Obama's victory rally. I couldn't take my eyes off the people's faces. I saw men and women, blacks and whites, the young and the elderly, celebrating as one -- together. I saw those who personally knew Dr. King and teens for whom he is an inherited inspirational legacy. Many of them cried, and as I watched them, I cried too.

No one can deny that electing a black man to the American presidency is inspiring, almost surreally so. More so than in the 1980s, I get the feeling that this is the "morning in America" so often talked about. There is idealism in that statement -- a sentiment I normally shun as a realist student of government -- but a powerful feeling nonetheless.

Echo Brown '06 used her column "Still In Awe" (Nov. 11) to add her personal story to the national Obama narrative. Her story gives me a special pride in America, more so than the one I usually carry, and as I read it I felt the hope of her father deep within my heart. But even though I wish her well and my sentiments are justified -- that the "hard part" of America's racial struggle is over -- I feel a cause for caution.

A few years ago, less than a century and a half since abolition and a mere generation removed from the Civil Rights Movement, the election of a black president was unthinkable. Our country, given its racial (or arguably, racist) history did an amazing thing on November 4, but we must not lose sight of what actually happened. It chose a black man as one of two candidates, the other being a straw man for the most hated president in American polling history. It elected the candidate of the out-of-power party in the midst of a serious economic crisis; something it always does. It picked a young and experienced ticket over one feared to be too old and incompetent. These facts and others make it difficult to accept the racial narratives many may have too quickly ascribed to this past election.

It would not surprise me if pundits used Obama's election as evidence that Dr. King's dream has been realized. They may congratulate themselves on a job well done, once and forever eradicating the racism that has thus far pervaded our history. But to do so would be dishonest.

America on November 5 is much the same as it was on November 4. Today, blacks are still twice as likely to live in poverty as the total population and only 14 percent of them will graduate from college. Institutional racism is still a reality. Bigotry lives on.

In this year, the progress wasn't exceptional, the candidate was. Obama's life personifies the American dream. Raised by a single mother in a poor, mixed-race house, he was able to lift himself out of bleak and dangerous life that awaited others like him on the streets and launch himself into the Ivy League. He married a brilliant and passionate professional, and they are raising two children and providing them with better opportunities than they had. Obama's margin for error was zero, and even so they still found things to say: "He's an elitist." "He's a closet Muslim." "He's conspiring with domestic terrorists." I wonder: If he, not Sarah Palin, had an unwed pregnant teenage daughter, how would the electorate react?

As we "begin the next great chapter of the American story" with those famous three words, "Yes we can," we should stay alert to the fact that while we have elected a black president, he is not the placeholder for his race. He is a singular man -- an exceptional American -- who was blessed by political circumstances and who happens to be black.

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