Now that Mitt Romney has been selected as the face of Republican candidacy for November, it feels like a good opportunity to take a Big Picture look at the upcoming contest and the operative factors.
Disappointed as we may feel by it, it’s already clear that Race will be a factor, and that it will be used in divisive ways in the Campaign Conversation. Behold, also how the mere possibility that Rick Santorum may have begun to uttter the n-word ignited America.
We acknowledge the presence of Race in the Race.
As I look ahead to November, I find myself looking back to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and to the impact that was felt in America from that unprecedented event. I see that there was much in the symbolism of his election that both fueled his candidacy and produced a positive effect in the country for a short time after — merely for the fact that Barack Obama, our first African-American president, had been elected.
As we consider now the question of whether to re-elect President Obama, it’s interesting to take a look at how the role of Race in the Race may be different in 2012. Four years into our first Black President, we’ve also learned a lot about Race in America that we didn’t know before
The election of our first Black president was something that existed as an idea long before we ever heard the name Barack Obama. For many of us, that event loomed very brightly in America’s future. Many people wished they would live long enough to see it happen. It was a big deal, much bigger than the election of an individual man. It was a symbol. And it inspired people for all sorts of reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with race or color. The election of our very first Black president, it was hoped and expected by many people, was supposed to be a high-water mark for the American Experiment.
To see a Black man reach the White House would be to know, certainly, that America had changed. We expected that so unequivocal a beacon to the progress of civil rights would also be a clear sign that we had somehow turned the corner in a deep, significant, permanent way. The reason for that expectation is that progress on the civil rights front has tracked in historical parallel with reform in other areas that could give you the impression that things were getting better all around. But that actually hasn’t been true for a while. I’ll quote Peter Thiel:
“Today’s aged hippies no longer understand that there is a difference between the election of a black president and the creation of cheap solar energy; in their minds, the movement towards greater civil rights parallels general progress everywhere. Because of these ideological conflations and commitments, the 1960s Progressive Left cannot ask whether things actually might be getting worse.”
I have to credit Peter Thiel with turning me back on to the symbolic significance of Barack Obama’s presidency in his thoughtful essay, The End of the Future, which I encourage you to read.
To return to my point, the election of Barack Obama was supposed to have changed America. We were all really excited. Remember? The question now of disappointment relates to those enormous expectations. However childish and innocent they may now appear to us in hindsight, we cannot deny that we had those dreams. Why were we so encouraged? Because something had finally happened that was always expected would prove we’d really made progress in America. Absolute, permanent progress.
That Barack Obama, the candidate, could so capably embody all that we expected him to be was his gift to us and to history. We got to have a first Black president who very possibly could be our best president. That was the feeling when we elected him. I remember it. I was watching the election returns on NBC from our apartment in the Tendernob. So great was the emotional significance of electing Barack Obama that you could see it overtake even seasoned news anchors. It was beautiful. And though there were some grumpy faces (we knew there must be somewhere, in other parts of the country), the sense of celebration began to grow. The Bay Area was of course en parade.
From what we could see of it on television, Hollywood had been transformed (if only for a few, glowing hours in the aftermath of the election) into a citadel of ideology. For having supported Barack Obama, all the famous check-writers could now connect themselves to a great moment in history.
I will never forget what Edward James Olmos said a few hours after the election: “Barack Obama is a great orator…”, and then he seemed to reach into the basket of things that he knows because he’s an actor “Most people swell up when the lights are shined on them” and then he looked up as if to indicate the newly-elected man at his podium “But, Barack he just reflects that light back on the audience” and he gestured expansively with his hands. I was struck by the observation and by the obvious feeling of reverence Barack had already produced in the Actor.
For a few weeks after the election, anyway, it felt like things just might be different in America. It seems terribly naive, now to look back, and have hoped for change of that magnitude. But what was so cool about the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election was that people were acting differently, because they were feeling different. It showed us that attitude could really change everything, and that it could happen over night.
Symbolic change could be real change, through the emotions it inspired in people. Seeing that change happen (although it didn’t last very long) is probably the most encouraging thing I have ever witnessed as an American.
As time passed, we came to understand that the man we had elected could not alone be our Savior. We saw the childish absurdity of our dream. As we watched him engage in the behaviors of his presidency, both mundane and official, we came to see him as just a man doing the job.
You might say that as the excitement and novelty of having elected our first Black president has worn off, we are left now to consider how having elected him has changed America.
It is a little disappointing we can’t feel positively today that we have made and are making absolute progress in the overall. But I can live with that disappointment. It’s too big a picture.
What is more grievously disappointing (and harder to live with) is that we haven’t taken as quantum a leap forward in our ideas about Race as we hoped. The presidency of Barack Obama has shined a new light and exposed Racism in new places.
We learned some things at the intersection of Race and the Oval Office that we didn’t know before. We learned, disappointingly, that the Office is not above attack on the basis of Race. This is a new discovery, only since the election of Barack Obama. It had never come up before. But now we know.
It is incredibly disappointing that the Race of our President will be an issue in the upcoming election. And what I mean by “an issue” is that it will be exploited by people on the other side who believe this is something they can use against him in a popular vote. This is also new. It had never come up before. But now we know.
We’ve been taught these things about Race by our first Black President. That has been one of the effects of his light. To shine a light upon ourselves is more difficult. But it is noteworthy that America is still a place where a Black child can be murdered with impunity. We shall see whether the arraignment of Zimmerman sticks. There’s been a lot of disappointing behavior in connection with the Trayvon Martin case. Apparently, we are still that place.
But I am determined to be positive.
I hope that the Obama team can re-connect with some of the ideology and “Big Dreams” that got him into office in the first place. What America needs foremost now is inspiration. We need to have our faith restored in the System. Attitude is everything, and nothing I’ve seen works better at adjusting attitude than faith in a Big Dream.
One of the best Big Dreams we’ve ever heard expressed was a Civil Rights Dream.
Given what I have seen in the last four years, I for one am not ready to separate Civil Rights progress as an indicator of progress in the Overall. What Big Picture message would it send to equivocate Barack Obama’s first election by denying him his second?
Let’s go all the way with this Black precedent.
If I could ask him for one thing it would be for him to try harder to be an inspiration to us. He is indeed such a marvelous orator, as Edward James Olmos observed in 2008.
What we need now are some really great Big Dream speeches, Barack! I am convinced that, if you lift your narrative to the level of inspiration, America will listen to you and follow.
Tell us what you think the Future looks like and why…