In 1964, a group of black and white civil rights protesters attempted to integrate the pool of the Monson Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. The hotel's owner, James Brock, responded by dumping acid into the pool. That was considered reasonable. This year, the Obama campaign opened a field office in St. Augustine, the most organized effort ever by a Democratic presidential campaign to win the Republican county surrounding my hometown. Obama ended up winning Florida and the entire country, a far stronger rebuke to the James Brocks of America than Martin Luther King Jr. was ever able to deliver. Jesse Jackson, who was there when King got shot, cried hardest of all last night. The old civil rights warriors feel this election more deeply than anyone else. The irony is that the civil rights movement never could have gotten to this day itself. Before this Obama election gets too grounded in our national psyche, let's go ahead and banish the hopeful assertion that this marks the beginning of a "Post-racial" society. As has been pointed out by everyone from Tavis Smiley to TAN, we're not post-anything. Race is just as strong of a psychological factor as it ever was. Our socialization has changed, and our expectations have been moderated, but America is far, far away from being a place where people "don't see" race.
As the only black commentator on CNN noted last night, Obama's 2009 inauguration will come exactly 100 years after the founding of the NAACP. The founding of that group came 100 years after Abraham Lincoln's birth. There you have the three easy stages of American racial history: the fight to end slavery, and Reconstruction; the long movement for civil rights; and whatever we're moving into now. The civil rights movement was concerned with laws, and it won all of the big battles that it set out to win. It's clear that laws don't totally erase inequality or racism. The NAACP is a now shell of its former self, a victim of its own successes. All of those people of my parents' and grandparents' generations who openly wept seeing the first black man elected President last night were surely, on some level, overwhelmed by the enormous distance that blacks in America have come; from slavery to the White House, which Obama's anecdote of his 106-year-old supporter so neatly alluded to. But Obama is a transcendent figure, and pegging his election as a new, inalienable plateau in race relations is a mistake. When Al Sharpton was a presidential candidate only four years ago, I'll bet that many of the people who voted for Obama yesterday would have guessed that they'd never see a black president in their lifetimes. Obama's mystical ability to appeal to everyone should be celebrated; but what does his election really represent for Black America?
Lots of people are just happy that one of their own has finally made it. There hasn't been a truly strong "leader" of Black America since MLK and Malcolm X were assassinated, and if you want to cast Obama in that role, he'll probably do for now. The symbolism of his success is worth a lot, but it won't change everything. Toure wonders how black men will be able to say 'Fuck the system' when the system is run by a black man. Obama himself is more a product of the hip hop generation than the generation that marched in Selma. And with every year that passes, and every successive generation that's born, our country becomes less white, more diverse, and less like the easy black-and-white dichotomy that seemed so clear to our parents. It's impossible to view race honestly through anything other than our own personal experiences. I know what this election means to me. Want to know what it means for black people? Ask a black person. Obama got elected because people honestly feel he'll do a better job. And he probably will. John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson, and, yes, even Al Sharpton are all American heroes. But while the issues they fought over haven't been resolved, their time in history's spotlight is gone just as sure as John McCain's is. The more relevant question may not be "What does Obama mean for Black America?" It may be, instead, "What does Black America mean any more?" And if every non-black person goes out and has a conversation about that question with somebody who might actually know the answer, we'll all have made some good old-fashioned racial progress. That's how Obama helps us be better, even if he doesn't do a damn thing. "It's about you." [Pic via Flickr]