"The moral arc of universe is long is but it bends towards justice." — Martin Luther King
It's tempting to be swept up in the emotion. It was only 50 years ago that black people were being regularly lynched to the glee of terrorist mobs. Folks like my grandfather — one of the lucky ones — endured the humiliation of having fellow Navy men look for his "monkey tail" in the shower.
In what other nation has a member of a historically-oppressed minority risen to the highest elected office in the land?
But, as easy as it is to be caught up in the moment, it's also disorienting. Obama may be a transformational figure, but he's not transcendent, otherwise we wouldn‘t be talking about race — at all.
Culturally, Obama's election changes the race dynamics equation. But how? Is this progress? As out of touch as it may seem, one of the Right's favorite black writers, Shelby Steele, author of A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, predictably doesn't think so.
In a recent interview, Steele said an Obama presidency isn't a sign of progress because America has been "ready" to elect a black person at least since Colin Powell. I think what he meant was that America was ready to elect a conservative black candidate.
Will there be a backlash, as we've seen every time there's been even a perceived symbolic victory for racial justice? The Civil War and Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow nation. The civil rights movement was followed by the New Right, which eventually gave rise to the racially-charged and ruinous reign of the neocons.
The psychologist and philosopher William James once said (and I'm paraphrasing): most people say they're thinking when, really, they are only re-arranging their prejudices.
Still, blacks and whites will have to recalibrate their thoughts about the relationship between race policy and upward mobility. How do you make the case for affirmative action now?
Although the singular achievement of Obama will transform how America thinks about race, it doesn't magically erase the historical inequities of accumulated wealth that have cascaded down the generations to the present-day, privileging white America with a 200-year economic head start. To the extent that economic opportunity is largely a function of who you know and what kind of access you have to financial resources (loans, family inheritances, etc.), an Obama victory doesn't change any of that.
Looking beyond race, which is where most of Obama's supporters have been focusing, there's hope America can rejoin the international community as a multilateral leader, instead of trying to unilaterally impose a global empire.
There's hope that torture as official U.S. policy will end. There's hope real intelligence will mean something in Washington again and the tide of anti-intellectualism will recede.
There's hope that the prevailing ethos of I‘ve-got-mine-to-hell-with-you-if-you-don‘t-have-yours will be eclipsed by an ethic of I-am-my-brother-and-sister's-keeper.
There's hope — not because one man was elected — but because the election realigns the political establishment, creating opportunities for us to bring pressure to bear on an Obama administration to make real change.
There's hope. And while that may seem a trivial thing to the comfortable, for those afflicted by a sense of hopelessness it's exactly what the doctor ordered.
It'll be years before the true significance of Obama can be measured. But this, I'm sure about: when black parents tell their children "You can be anything you want to be when you grow up," the parents will really believe it. We won't just be making a leap of faith. We'll be pointing out the obvious.
It's a tribute to my own parents that they convinced me I could be anything I wanted long before Obama was on the scene. It was an outlook nourished in the black Baptist church of my youth, where I began my spiritual quest in earnest. It was that tradition that introduced me to theology, where I eventually encountered the writings of Soren Kierkegaard.
His definition of hope has been burned into my soul: "Hope is the passion for what is possible."
As a father, my job is to instill in my children a sense of hope and possibility as well as the self-discipline required to turn dreams into reality. And contrary to the popular myth pedaled by conservatives — that the core of black culture lives in the victim-hood — me and millions of other Americans of African-descent come from a long (albeit imperfect) history of instilling a thirst for achievement in the next generation.
But now, for the first time, without all the caveats, I can tell my kids — this is what makes America great: in this country, anything is possible — and the only constant is change.