By Dick Polman
In the recent HBO miniseries that chronicled the life of John Adams, there is a wrenching scene outside the new White House. John and Abigail, having arrived to take occupancy, scan their surroundings and quickly realize that the place is being built, and that the swampland is being cleared, by black slaves. And Abigail says to her husband, “Nothing good can come of this.” She could never have imagined the bloodshed that would ensue.
Yet today we have a descendent of slaves as first lady. And the new president is someone who, if he’d lived as an adult in the culturally southern Washington, D.C., of 60 years ago, would have likely been refused lunch-counter service in any number of commercial establishments.
There will be plenty of time to chart Barack Obama’s achievements and inevitable screwups. He’ll ride the polls up and down as all presidents do, he’ll be hammered routinely in the blogosphere (he is already), and at times he’ll be roasted even by his followers. Any Obama fan who thinks otherwise doesn’t know squat about American history. But, as a point of national pride, it’s worth hitting the pause button for one fleeting moment just to ponder the meaning of Tuesday.
When I was young, the TV news was filled with imagery of southern blacks being beaten by white mobs, and being hosed by racist sheriffs, all because they wanted to eat in public with whites, attend schools with whites, and vote along with whites. Those news reports were my first exposure to the racial divide. This was only 45 years ago, a mere blip in time in the life of a nation. So much has since changed for the better that we barely notice, for example, that blacks (Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell) serve as post-racial role models in any number of spheres.
A singular democracy
Obama’s historic rise doesn’t mean that true racial equality has been achieved; huge disparities persist, of course. But it does signify that America, for all its flaws and injustices, has an inherent dynamism that few other western democracies can match. It’s hard to imagine a person of color rising to the top of the political class in Britain or France or Germany. Indeed, it’s still hard to process the fact that a new black president, in his inaugural speech, took note of his race only in passing, at one point contextualizing the black struggle merely as part of the American immigrant experience (“they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth”).
The unimaginable became reality Tuesday not because white voters somehow suddenly decided it was time to put a black in the White House; rather, it happened for a much better reason. A sufficient percentage of white voters opted to look past Obama’s race and choose the person they deemed most qualified. Obama got 43 percent of the white vote, which was higher than John Kerry’s share in ’04, and higher than Al Gore’s share in ’00. Stats aside, I offer this anecdote: A suburban white woman I know, from a Republican family, exulted Tuesday about the Obamas, saying, “They’re just like us!” — and race didn’t even rate a mention.
And while supportive whites typically view Obama’s race as almost beside the point, blacks can assess him with pride. An entire generation of black American youngsters will come of age knowing that a black American is the most powerful person on the planet. That’s the strongest possible message about the enduring promise of America, and the opportunities in the 21st century for building a vibrant, multi-cultural society.
All this is worth feeling patriotic about. And it’s particularly satisfying for the millions of Americans — roughly half the electorate, actually — who have spent the last eight years feeling less than proud and wishing they could feel more. Now, finally, a profound flag-waving moment has arrived. In that sense, Mission Accomplished.
X Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.