Some things are obvious.
Electing a first African American President is world historic.
The electorate bending toward sanity, eloquence, and dignity, rather than a death spiral into moronic depravity is positive, too, even if mostly because the alternative is a condition of abject horror.
Realignment of various voting sectors and undercutting market mania are very positive, too.
The fact that Obama's campaign was unprecedentedly efficient and effective is certainly worth learning from.
An electoral facility is not, however, a progressive credential - more or less like being a prisoner of war for bombing defenseless peasants isn't a credential for wisdom or civility.
The fact that Obama's support, particularly among young people, creates an incredibly hopeful opportunity to be boldly progressive, or even radical, is also good, but not conclusive. Put differently, the potential in Obama's victory does not imply there will be great actualization in its aftermath. We will almost certainly see reforms reflecting the catastrophic need to escape economic woes by regulating markets and dealing with health care, but that could be the end rather than beginning of Obama's positive agenda.
If we rely on Obama to actualize the larger hopes of the election, most likely he will not. Indeed, the only positive signs that he will are that he has the competence, confidence, and chutzpah, as well as a sufficiently large organized base of support. In contrast, the negative indicators that he won't are that nothing beyond vague rhetorical flourishes indicates that Obama has seriously progressive views, commitments, connections, or inclinations, and that the systemic pressures on him and aggressive channeling of his time and thought will be enormous.
My guess is, sadly, that within one week, literally one week, Obama's staff and cabinet choices will make decisively evident that without mass activism forcing new outcomes, change will stop at the surface. I fervently hope I am wrong.
Our task is in any event to press Obama mightily, starting immediately. For the moment, when folks who support him are interviewed and connect Obama to the civil rights heritage and even let their rhetoric expand in their understandable glee establishing expectations that would require a serious left shift and struggle, it pushes prospects well. But I don't think that will be remotely enough if Obama appoints traditionally oriented folks to his staff, revealing not boldness in pursuit of change, but aloof disregard for the passions he has aroused in pursuit of business as usual, thereby quickly undercutting euphoria.
Part of the Way with BHO?
Maybe we can have that much, at best. But ironically, if that slogan does against the odds make some sense in coming weeks and months, there will still be a strong analogy to the "Part of the Way with LBJ" formulation of decades back. It was LBJ's populist inclinations around civil rights and modest redistribution that engendered the slogan in the first place. It was LBJ's pursuit of annihilation in Indochina, however, that blew the slogan's sentiment to shreds. Imagine Obama expanding war in Afghanistan or reneging on getting out of Iraq, even assuming he is, personally, truely inclined to populist domestic change, and you can see a road to repression and resistance.
But, one other thing about our response to Obama and the election seems pretty clear, and I think quite important to note, even if my worst fears about the limits of Obama come true.
Leftists of all kinds need to avoid acting as though this election was run of the mill, or especially that those who voted for Obama were deceived or naive, or that those who are elated by seeing him in office are fools.
This election was not run of the mill. This election was, in fact, historic as no other election I have ever encountered, regarding black people's and other minority's hopes and aspirations, regarding the electoral map, regarding escaping Republican nightmares that could have gotten infinitely worse, regarding the possible emergence of young people as an active political and social force, and regarding the coming struggle over whether cynicism will continue to drain activist prospects, or, instead, inspired by rhetoric and excitement and then angered by rejection, masses of people ironically intoning "yes we can" will persevere even against Obama Administration opposition to win what we had hoped to more easily gain.
The election isn't, however, as best I can now see, a new society or even remotely a road to one - instead, we will have to work for that likely without Oval Office aid - but the fact that this election wasn't everything, or even what some people hoped, doesn't mean it was nothing.
And now comes the truly hard question - racism. What does having a Black President mean about racism? Again, some things seem relatively obvious.
The impact on young people's self image, hopes, and images of others, will be enormous and even taken all alone this one gain is worthy of the joyful tears many are shedding. To not understand that fact, or to deny that fact out of some odd inability to acknowledge progress, is blockheaded and extremely callous.
Barack Obama is a very unusual and inspiring orator/candidate - but he is not Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the idea of King running for President forty years ago was absolutely unthinkable. So we have progressed. And that is no small thing. Jesse Jackson wasn't modestly standing in the park in Chicago and weeping for no reason or because he is deluded. Denying progress is utterly ridiculous both in its divorce from reality and in that it shoots ourselves in the head - after all, where did the progress come from if not social movements?
Does that mean there is no racism anymore? No.
But it does mean that the ideological trappings of racism and many of the structural supports, as well, have been over years and years, seriously undermined and in some instances even obliterated. What mainly remains are three things. First, residual largely material deprivations that owe their origin to the past but that are reproduced simply due to their existing, even without any racist sentiment or laws coercing the outcome. Second, I suspect there remain some basic underlying institutional features which tend to regenerate racial hierarchies still. And third, and now, at last, least consequential and likely to further decline, admittedly, still many people who retain racist personal inclinations, particularly in the South, but not alone there by any means. Look at the maps showing the change in vote level for the Democrat between 2004 and 2008, virtually all over the country, and the trend is pretty clear.
What has happened, in other words, is that the massive courageous and intense efforts of Blacks in struggle, plus their allies, have undermined many people's racist beliefs to a very considerable extent - though not completely. Those struggles have also eliminated at least a considerable part of the laws and other structures, overt and covert, that daily reenforced horrible racist hierarchies. Those struggles have, however, not gotten, I suspect, to the deepest institutional heart of racial hierarchy, nor have they eliminated all the bad views and habits from all people's personalities, either, of course, nor eliminated all the residual disparities in income, wealth, and position. But, still, the change that has occurred is enormous and if efforts persist, calmly but steadfastly, and if they go from past logics built on symptoms to finally addressing the deepest underlying structures and relations, whether in families, community definitions, or whatever else, the scourge of racism may be all but eliminated as a powerful drag on people's lives in the years ahead.
I would never have said anything like the above forty, thirty, or even just twenty years ago, nothing like that, short of seeing revolution on the horizon - but the simple fact is, you can't have a society that has a black president who polled better among whites than his opponent in most states and better then any white Democrat in decades in virtually all states, and still claim it is the days of fiercest virulent racism. It just isn't...though yes, until we eliminate the most basic underlying causes, those horrible days could return.
Am I in fantasy land either regarding my doubts (despite my hopes) about short term presidential agenda or my hopes about longer term electoral and racial implications? I don't think so. Here is a letter a friend of mine received from a public school teacher in Boston...
I know I can get down in the dumps about my job, but not today. Today was a great day to be a teacher.
After staying up into the deepest hours of the night, agonizing, waiting and celebrating, I had to drag myself out of bed this morning. My early morning drive to school today was a little fuzzier than usual... so fuzzy that I decided to stop on the way for a cup of coffee and ditch my usual green tea start to the day. Little did I know that I would need no amount of caffeine to get me through the day.
The excitement started as soon as I entered my building. It turns out that a small group of students were in the building before school even started to decorate our hallways with Obama posters. They had made photo copies of Barack Obama's face under which they wrote one word: "President". By the time the rest of the student body had arrived our whole school had been plastered with these signs. At 7:14 am, the hallways at my school looked very familiar: crowded, hectic and loud. Only this morning, students weren't ignoring their teacher's requests to get to their homerooms because they were too busy gossiping about shoes or TV last night or each other. Instead, students were simply too busy to get to class on time because they were all talking politics with their friends. It was stunning to overhear conversations between 8th graders that included words like: electoral votes, democracy and ballot. And it wasn't just a few kids - it was all of them.
Felix, the loudest, tallest and coolest 8th grade boy in homeroom 8F came into our room with 6 Obama buttons on his sweatshirt. And as if this wasn't enough, he set the school trend for wearing the Obama posters that were once hanging all over the hallways. One minute he was asking to borrow some tape and the next minute the Obama print outs are all over his (and then all the other boys') torsos.
Meanwhile I looked around my homeroom and had a shocking realization: this is a room filled with 13 year olds and all of them are in a good mood. But knowing how much their moods fluctuate during the coarse of a day, I was sure that by last block the excitement would have subsided.
I was wrong.
I picked up 8C from lunch and on the way back to class I had to remind Lexxi that it wasn't appropriate hallway behavior to chant, "Obama, Obama, Obama" as loudly as she could. Now I knew my lesson on chemical formulas would be a hard sell for such an over-stimulated and over-tired afternoon crew so I decided to make them a deal. "If we get all our work done this afternoon, we will spend the last 20 minutes of the day watching Obama's victory speech. However, if we don't work efficiently we won't have enough time."
When else would this be a successful incentive for adolescent children: if you work hard, i'll let you listen silently to a grown-up give a long speech about our political process. I couldn't believe it worked, but it did. The class only got off track a couple of times and I was easily able to re-focus them by providing one simple reminder: "President Obama would want us to get our work done."
As promised, at the end of the period we closed our chemistry books and tuned in to hear our next President give his victory speech. It didn't seem to matter that it was the last 15 minutes of the day ... the first bell even rang and no one even packed up their things. Not only did they listen to Obama's speech intently, but a few times they began cheering so loud I had to pause the speech and remind them that a class was taking place next door.
You remember this part of Obama's speech last night: "This victory is not my victory. It's your's." To this, Vianca (one of my most chatty and challenging girls) said out loud: "Yeah, it's my victory!" I looked around at the room of my 28 students - all of whom are people of color - and I saw the future teachers, doctors, artists and Presidents of this country. I almost started crying all over again.