Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Crossing the Race Rubicon

The improbable candidate achieved the unimaginable and overnight, the world became a better place.

Four years ago, the president-elect said at the Democratic National Convention, “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible.”

Last night, it all came together for Barack ("blessing" in Swahili) Hussein Obama in a way that even he could not have dreamed in 2004.

Obama stirred hope in the hearts of people, not just in America but around the globe, but let us not forget that he matched his hope with hard work, undaunted by setbacks and by those who said, “No you can’t.”

“Yes we can” is now a part of the American vocabulary.

By electing an African-American as the 44th president of the United States, America has finally crossed the race Rubicon.

Martin Luther King’s dream that we should be judged not by the color of our skins but by the content of our character is now a reality, even if tempered by memories of hidden wounds too painful for some to forget.

African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama but he could not have been elected president if whites did not vote for him in such unprecedented numbers also, from idealistic students and blue collar workers to liberal intellectuals and Hollywood moguls. Consider this stark fact: North Dakota, Utah, Montana, Vermont, Nebraska and New Mexico went for Obama although there isn't much of an African-American presence in those six states. The biggest shocker of all: Obama won North Carolina and Indiana, two of the reddest states in America. Until now.

America has become colorblind.

While this holds profound lessons for all, it is particularly meaningful for European nations where immigrants are often treated as second-class citizens even after decades of invaluable contributions to their respective societies. Perhaps Obama’s victory will convince France, England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Spain and other countries to also become colorblind and inclusive. There really is no other way.

Until now, when the world looked up to America, it was because of its science and technology and medicine. But now the world will also look at America with awe and wonder because of its socially enlightened citizenry. Who could have ever imagined that?

Reversing the “either you are with us or against us” threat that defined George Bush’s belligerent foreign policy is a priority for Barack Obama. He has promised to meet unconditionally with any world leader to discuss and negotiate peace. The international temperature seems to have already cooled by a few degrees, and even though securing agreements with nations alienated by American arrogance may take time, the prospects are promising, given the spontanaeous outpouring of global goodwill for the president-elect.

The danger posed by global warming is another priority. Throughout his campaign, Obama spoke passionately about the earth’s dwindling resources, its relentless exploitation by all but Western countries in particular, the urgency of clean energy sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, and legislating sane policies based on scientific evidences to protect us and our children from rising seas and diminishing landmass.

But the sheer wonder of an African-American making the White House his home for at least the next four years is so astonishing that it blocks out other thoughts.

It was on New Year’s Day in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. A hundred years later, in 1963, Martin Luther King informed Americans and the world that he had a dream. A year later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing
racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. Johnson followed it up with the National Voting Rights Act in 1965 to empower African-Americans to cast ballots without fear.

But the laws were only theories and it took many more years before they became reality for those they were meant to protect. A movie currently playing in theatres –The Secret Life of Bees – based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Sue Monk Kidd – gives viewers an idea of how many lives were lost and shattered before African-Americans could actually vote.

While many commentators have reflected on these historic milestones in the wake of Obama’s victory, one name has gone unmentioned. It is that of Muhammad Ali. Obama inspired us with the audacity of hope but in the ‘60s, Ali lifted our spirits with his raw audacity alone. From “I have seen the light and I am crowing” to “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali spoke truth to power, opening raw wounds in the psyche of America that provoked anger and revulsion but in the end proved cathartic for the nation. The change that he brought about through his audacity and moral courage surely played a role in the election that transfixed us on November 4th and transformed the world.

P.S. Toni Morrison, the last American to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal on 11/7/2008. The relevant excerpt follows:

Q. What do you think Mr. Obama's win says about American conception of race?

A. We're still a very active, volcanic country which is part of its excitement - the reinvention of ourselves and the constant search for what democracy means. I'm keenly aware of this peculiarity for this country. You couldn't imagine a win like this in Europe, because they're more static in how they run things. I can't imagine a Senegalese man in Paris running France - but now maybe.

Q. It's interesting that very little of the public discourse about Mr. Obama deals with his mixed-race status.

A. The other part of his race and his cultural experience was swept under the rug. That was deliberate so he could be the quintessential American even though the country was built on diversity. They had to tiptoe around that, but I think that nuanced discussion will happen. I kept saying that this is not an African-America but it's this specific man. This man. I can think of a lot of African-American that I would not vote for.

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