I’ve been very leary of all of the discussions of Obama as a transformative figure: I remember in Virginia when Doug Wilder was elected as the first black governor since Reconstruction and then…a few years later, a wave of conservatism washed over, well, everything. But, nonetheless, Obama’s nomination does lend itself to some optimism:
Here is the fundamental tragedy of the backlash [against civil rights]: Voters like this empowered a party that decided they didn’t need protection against predatory subprime mortgage fraud. Didn’t need affordable, universal health insurance; made it easier for companies to rape their pensions; kept on going back to the well to destroy their Social Security; worked avidly to shred their union protections. Fought, in fact, every decent and wise social provision that made it possible in the first place for mere factory workers to live in glorious Chicago bungalows, or suburban homes, in the first place.
Now a black man from the city King visited in 1966 and called more hateful than Mississippi is running for president, fighting for all those things that made the mid-century American middle class the glory of world civilization, but which that middle class squandered out of the small-mindedness of backlash.
This post is for Chicago. This post is for America. This post is for our future. This post is for our history–that we may redeem it. This post is for a man who, had he walked down the wrong street in his own city 42 years ago, might well have been beaten to death.
The thing that has bothered me about the talk of Obama and transformation is that he is not transformative agent: we are. Millions of Americans have decided that the appropriate response to an intelligent, confident black man is to vote for him, and not to beat him to death. That sea change is due to a lot of hard, dangerous, and sometimes deadly work–and let’s place credit where it is due: much of that work was done by people who, today, would be called liberals.
If there will be “change”, it is we, not Obama, who will have done it. Remember that, and embrace the responsibility that entails.