Obama and the Beloved Community: Are We There Yet?
Many have commented on how Senator Obama's election has the power and potential to recast and redeem America's image in the world, usher in a new style of politics rooted in bridge-building and problem-solving, and further galvanize a sea of new voters into our political process. All of these are true, but I also hope and pray that his election has the power to redefine how Americans define their "we" and accelerate the time table of racial justice. Obama's election opens up new doors to racial dialogue, racial reconciliation, and most importantly, to social justice in this nation.
During the course of this marathon-like residential campaign, America's original sin of racism reared its ugly head in both subtle and overt forms. From the incessant replaying of tapes of Reverend Jeremiah Wright to false rumors and insinuations that Obama is an Arab and a Muslim to assaults on Obama's patriotism; race has been a constant undercurrent.
Many supporters believe that this outcome means that we have transcended race and are entering into a post-racial era. To be honest, I have never fully understood what the term post-racial means. Does Obama's election really signal a new era in which race no longer matters?
I believe that Obama's victory paves the highway toward a less racialized America, an America in which race no longer confers such profound privileges or burdens depending on your skin color. His election brings us a critical step closer to King's vision of a beloved community in which we celebrate and embrace the strength and richness that comes from our differences, not ignore or discount them. Obama's election helps to tear down walls of internalized racism that still suffocate the dreams of many children of color. His election has ignited the imagination of young children who can now believe that they too can become the President of the United States.
However, we can't afford to hail this racial progress at the expense of ignoring real racial pain. Obama's election does not automatically dismantle the considerable barriers that still stifle black and brown opportunity and success. His election does not automatically level the educational playing field, close the growing wealth divide between black and white, or eradicate the vicious cycle of poverty that disproportionately impacts black and brown Americans. The fact that a majority of Americans cast their ballot for Barack Obama does not in and of itself get us to the promised land.
Newark Mayor Corey Booker poetically said it best -- that our nation must embrace the "deliciousness of its racial and ethnic diversity." Obama's story embodies that deliciousness. That deliciousness is also what I have been blessed with my entire life as the offspring of a white father and black mother. My most poignant moment on election night was in talking with my African-American mother who grew up in segregated Louisville, Kentucky. She broke down on the phone while describing the overwhelming pride and joy that she felt in witnessing an event that she never thought was possible in her lifetime. It's as though a rising tide of change finally broke through a dam of racial intolerance. She talked about how she couldn't help but seeing elements of Barack in me as her biracial son.
When my parents were contemplating getting married in 1968, my father's white stepmother used me as the biggest reason as to why my parents should never marry, because their children would become the tragic mulatto with no real identity or community to call home. Our nation comes out of this dark, not so distant history in which black men were lynched for even looking at a white woman and laws outlawed interracial dating or marriage. Deep-seated fears around race mixing exacerbated and often entrenched the evils of Jim Crow segregation. I wish that my step-grandmother knew how much my biracial background has served as a source of deep strength and richness in my life instead of division and alienation. I hope that she can see the irony in that Obama's biracial identity played such a key role in helping many white voters identify with his story and reassure them that he would represent all of America, not just black America. I pray that my step-grandmother is also celebrating this moment, just as my mother and father are rejoicing with tears in their eyes. Their marriage and example has taught me that love is truly more powerful than bigotry and that perfect love casts out fear. Let us join together to continue the hard but critical work of racial reconciliation and justice, not to reach some fantasy post-racial America but to build a multicultural and multi-racial America in which our notions of community and our "we" have expanded to include everyone. In this new America racial and ethnic differences will become sources of pride and strength versus division and handicap.
Adam Taylor is senior policy director for Sojourners.