Obama and the Ghosts of Racism

"They said this day would never come," Barack Obama declared in Iowa last week, and the ghosts of this nation nodded. With an African-American competing seriously for the presidency of the United States, the last act of a centuries-old drama begins. Obama's blood tie to the story of American slavery, ironically, comes through his white mother's ancestry, which apparently includes both slave owners and those who fought for the Union to end slavery. That Obama's father was a Kenyan links him more directly than anyone could have imagined both to Africa's past as an exploited continent, and to its present, where the bloody legacy of colonialism plays itself out. (Obama's father was a member of the Luo tribe, like Raila Odinga, the leader of the Kenyan opposition, whose people are protesting the recent election.)

In the American memory, slavery and then the war to abolish it are taken to be the two poles of the story, but it isn't that simple. If racial injustice continued to be a hallmark of life in the United States, it was thought to be an inevitable, but essentially unchosen consequence of the "250 years of unrequited toil," in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, that were imposed on kidnapped Africans and their descendants. Nearly a million Americans died in the war to end slavery, and - still in the American memory - the nation has felt badly ever since that slavery's hangover includes discrimination against black people to this day.The conventional wisdom, given powerful articulation a generation ago by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is that the plight of African-Americans - from broad family dysfunction, to almost unshakeable poverty, to disproportionate incarceration rates of black males - is a tragic consequence of the social evil that America nobly renounced in the mid-19th century. Black people are socially disadvantaged, according to this narrative, because of the unhealed wound that was inflicted on them across the early centuries. Innately equal, yes, but they have been made a crippled people, which accounts for their still inferior position.

But, as historians like Yale's Harry S. Stout point out, there is a third pole to the story, and it destroys the moral symmetry of the conventional wisdom. First, Africans were enslaved. Next, a savage war was justified by the "freeing" of slaves. Then, in a distinct but insufficiently acknowledged act of the drama, black people were actively resubjugated in the decades after the Civil War. That resubjugation, embodied in a "reconstruction" bargain between North and South, according to which the other purpose of the Civil War, "union," was given priority over "freedom," led to the culture of Jim Crow, radical segregation, and the use of law to keep African-Americans in an assigned place. That actively nurtured system - not the crippling effects of a long-abolished injustice - defines the ongoing American crime.

African-Americans have not been passive victims of this heinous tradition. Blacks led the resistance to it, culminating in the triumphs of the civil rights movement, preparing the way for leaders like Obama. But his arrival, at a level below the surface of whatever policies he advances, calls into question the dominant way in which this nation thinks of itself - not only in terms of race, but in terms of war. After all, the American belief in the righteousness of mass killing for the sake of abstract values like "freedom" springs not from the Revolution, where the killing was relatively slight and the freedom limited to a merchant class, but from the Civil War, where a spirit of total killing was justified by a professed commitment to racial equality that simply did not exist.

In his heart-breaking second inaugural address, Lincoln argued that the "unrequited toil" and "every drop of blood drawn with the lash" would be redeemed by the war, but a month later he was murdered. The quite deliberately constructed aftermath of the war destroyed Lincoln's promise, although Americans told themselves otherwise. They glorified war, while preserving an injustice that war supposedly overcame. That was only yesterday.

Obama embodies more than he can know. "Change" is his mantra, but the potential for transformation goes far beyond the kinds of policies pursued in Washington. Those policies are rooted in assumptions sunk deep into the national psyche, and into the structure of memory that gives it shape. War is not necessarily redemptive. Africans are not necessarily disadvantaged. African-Americans are not mere victims. Race, for that matter, need not be definitive. An old story is offered a new ending - which is the beginning America has been awaiting. The day has come.

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