OK, so a long election cycle is over. I wondered if the chattering class – a class to which I aspire – would have much left to say. I mean, seriously, so much has been said already. I’m of course wrong. I should have known that the big and apparently only question would be raised: will this election lead people to say that racism is over?
This is no innocent question. There’s so much at stake, so the conversation in writing or on the radio is somber and even a bit fatalistic.
And that has bothered me a lot. For a bunch of reasons I wanted to write out, even if in short-hand.
First, I’m saddened that so many us on the left or progressive wing of politics can’t feel pleasure. I thought of this from the opposite perspective after 11 September 2001, where political critique began instantly and few seemed capable of just being sad at so much death and destruction. And now what seems to be a lack of pleasure at a breakthrough most of us thought impossible. Just as pain gives deep meaning to analysis, so too pleasure. Think critically all you want, but don’t forget the pleasure of something as debilitating and despairing as “no black person could be president” falling away, in such decisive fashion, accomplished by a coalition of random, committed people. My first thought: feel good, damn it! Critical analysis can wait. Ain’t nothing going to change in the next couple of weeks. (Bush is still presidente! Ay!)
Second, this worry about people declaring “racism is over” seems poorly placed at this moment. I’ve actually not heard a person say that, so this is a comment on commentary on a hypothetical case. Still, I ask: is there anyone who thought a week past that racism was a problem and suddenly, now, today, thinks racism is gone? I doubt it. Fact is, many people already believe racism is over and out. This just gives them another anecdote when making the case. Fretting about Obama’s election because he is another anecdote seems pretty lame. Not sure how else to put it. After all, the alternative is pretty depressing. Are we supposed to not want a black president in order to limit the number of examples the “there is no racism” folks can evoke? Nah. So what are we really talking about here?
Third, I listened to a great interview on NPR’s Morning Edition today while dropping my son at preschool. I liked the interview, but mostly because it was a concise summary of the other issue: the claim that Obama’s election is just an empty symbol.
I have a lot to say about this, but will be brief. To begin, I’m not sure why symbols are so unimportant – is anyone that radical of a materialist?! Symbols move the world, for better or worse. They have a real human effect. Were it not for the power of symbolic figures, acts, and events, the world would lack myth and literature. And political imagination. Not so empty in Obama’s case, I’d say. It is a symbol that this one thing, the presidency, is now accessible to African-Americans. For so many in my generation and prior, that was unimaginable. Glad to be wrong.
As well, electoral politics are a symbol for which many have sacrificed so much. I have a hard time imagining telling folks facing down police, hoses, and rabid police dogs in Alabama that, hey, this is just an empty symbol. At the very least, it is a symbol that matters in the body and soul. At the most, it changes the world.
Which is my fourth and final remark: what if Obama is just a symbol and he governs like a regular, mainstream Democrat? I suspect he will. His platform was pretty mainstream Democrat idea-laden, after all. He is a symbol the country needs, though, and I’ll say this specifically as a white person. I think we white people need, as a matter of daily, walkabout habit, to see a world in which we might work for, depend for a livelihood on, and ultimately be a citizen under a black person. Progressive politics around, say, affirmative action labor for something specific: a diversified workplace. But the point is not to have horizontal work relations alone. The point, I think, it to eventually have diverse vertical work relations. The reality of diversity in power relations is good for anti-racism at the level of habit, which is where so much political change happens. The symbol of the presidency matters right there, just so much.
In the end, I felt so happy when Obama was elected. I hugged all of my friends. I felt pleasure. I felt cynicism die just a bit, a cynicism Clinton and Bush share – a sense that nothing matters. And I’ll feel all sorts of critique in the years to come. I don’t think racism is over. I’ve not met a person who thinks that who did not think it already.
But I will say this: racism sustained a serious blow in this campaign season. That’s never a bad thing.