Just a few days ago I returned from a dizzying trip to DC where I was able to both attend the inauguration events and to hang out with my family. Both of those things have got me thinking about the meaning of race in this election, and this Presidency.
Throughout the campaign, I always tried to walk a delicate balance in talking about Obama’s race - acknowledging the historic nature of his candidacy, but also making it clear that the election was about a wider range of issues, and that we wanted to appeal to the widest possible range of voters. Personally, I always felt awkward about the issue. As, let’s face it, a white northern girl who is younger than the Civil Rights movement, it seemed like anything I could say would be potentially inflammatory, condescending, or just tone deaf.
But I was very struck by the reactions I had from so many strong Democrats - folks who really wanted Barack to be President - who nevertheless felt that it was simply impossible: couldn’t be done. One Party stalwart told me flatly that America was too racist to elect him. These people always astonished me, not only because I never saw the country that way (sure, there’s racism in America, lots of it, but I just don’t think they make up a majority in this day and age) but also because I didn’t see Obama that way. Sure, he was black, comfortably and confidently African-American - despite his mixed race heritage - but I never looked at him and saw him exclusively or even primarily as a black man. There seemed to me something de-humanising about this determination to look past his intelligence, his obvious sense of empathy, and his sheer talent to see primarily his race.
The people who said these things to me are the opposite of racists - some of them were active in the civil rights movement themselves, and all of them care deeply about achieving social justice in America. But their insistence upon the racism of those “other people” - the ones who were going to make it impossible to elect him - despite all evidence of Obama’s high favorability rating, his ability to win over white voters across the country, his own eloquent speech on race in which he acknowledged the hard legacy of race but also talked of an america that can change… The stubbornness with which some of my friends continued to see him as first and foremost a black man frustrated me.
But my thoughts on this have evolved a little bit since my trip - not because of anything I saw on stage at any of the inaugural events, but because of the faces in the crowd watching it with me.
Now, I should say - before I moved to London I lived in Washington, DC for a lot of years. It’s a great town - walkable, with a thriving cultural scene, good restaurants and great public transport. But there are a few obvious disadvantages to life in the District. Crime is one. Homelessnes. But also, in a more general sense, the prevailing sense of disconnection between the citizens of the city (90% African American) and the Federal Government, which not only works there but has a bizarre amount of legal control over the city. The citizens of DC co-exist uneasily with the Federal City. Not necessarily angrily, but distantly, and for all the year that I was there it felt like there was an almost palpable sense of Us and Them. A certain distrust, not unjustified, that the federal people had anything like the best interests of the District in mind. And bear in mind - I’m not talking about the Bush administration. I lived in DC under Clinton, who as you may recall was at the time talked of as “the first black President”.
Except, of course, he wasn’t. Barack is, and the difference was astonishing to me. Looking around the faces on the Mall, it was clear that many of them were locals - not something I remember from previous big DC events. On the Metro I got into a friendly dispute with a young African American man who insisted on offering me his seat (”Please, take a seat.” “Oh, no really I’m fine. You take it.” “No, go on…”). The elderly African American man and his twenty-something daughter who were sitting behind me during the ceremony struck up a friendly conversation and exchanged phone number with the two cowboy-booted white Texans next to them. At the sandwich bar, when I accidentally took a seat that one African American woman was saving for her friend, she brushed off my apology and together we found a third chair. Collectively, the folks I met in DC seemed more confident, less defensive, and absolutely bursting with pride and joy. They acted like they OWNED their country. Because they do. It was beautiful to see.
My aunt lives in Lynchburg Virginia, hotbed of the Old South. When she first moved there an acquaintaince chastised her for her friendly relations with the African Americans she worked with, saying, “you don’t know how to treat your blacks.” She was, obviously, appalled. And saddened, as she realised that the black people around her had a habit of not making eye contact, not striking up conversations with the white folks around them.
Well I saw my aunt this week, and she is amazed at the transformation in the people around her - especially in the African-Americans who, she tells me, are holding their heads high, making eye contact, intiating conversations.
It may be that this change is because, when they look at Barack Obama, the primary thing that THEY see is a black man. And if so, then good. It’s about damn time.