Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama's Election -- A Day of White Liberation

A Comment on Martin Luther King Day

I have a take on Barack Obama's election that I have not seen otherwise expressed, at least not in this form: his election is a liberating event for white Americans. As Chris Matthew said, "we are better than we thought we were." We may have known it all along, but Obama's election made us feel it in a new way.

By "white Americans" I mean all white Americans who are fundamentally fair-minded and feel goodwill toward others, however imperfectly those feelings are expressed. I exclude and rule out from my comment those white Americans who for reasons of mental illness, mental retardation, religious intolerance or a debilitating sense of inferiority are psychically locked into incurable racism. We simply need to draw a virtual fence around that sad subset of the population and do whatever damage control is necessary to limit the harm they can do to others.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family environment in which we were made to understand that all men are equal and were not permitted to use the word "Nigger." This teaching was understated and assumed, never hammered in. It was part of the elementary rules of conduct which came down to us from our middle-western White Anglo Saxon Protestant and largely Republican party tradition. It was part of the air we breathed. I would like to think, and I do think, that most white Americans have similar values, however suppressed they might be.

From this perspective the election of Barack Obama is a hugely liberating event for white Americans, a tremendous relief, a load off our backs. Racism, discrimination and inequality are terrible psychic burdens to white Americans, whether we realize it or not. I am no racist: I do not like racism, I do not need it, I do not want it, I do not wish to perpetrate it, it weighs me down, it distorts my relation to others and it depresses me. Yet, despite my own views and values I am acutely conscious of the racism, discrimination and injustice which African-Americans suffer, and I feel guilty on account of it.

Obama's candidacy gave we white Americans an unusual opportunity to show in the most public and momentous way that our happiness does not depend on white supremacy, that we are perfectly happy, indeed delighted, to support and choose an African-American as our president. I cannot speak for the impact of the election upon African-Americans, but I can attest that white Americans also shed tears of joy on election night. Tears of joy and relief, I should add. And, what is astonishing is that white Americans two and one-half months later still shed tears when they recall how they felt on election night.

The election has demonstrably moved us away from the historical model of a bi-racial society, with whites on top and everyone else underneath. And we white Americans supported, helped finance and voted for the death of that model. We know full well that America is in fact a multi-racial society, and we know we are fortunate that it is. Obama's election somehow brings that fact into the sunlight and shows our overdue and explicit recognition of the de-facto multi-racial society in which we live. Looking the other way, I hope that African-Americans will over time come to realize how strongly white Americans supported Barack Obama and how badly they wanted -- how badly they needed -- him to win.

Of course there is still a long way to go, but the game has changed. Thank Heaven! What a fine tribute to Martin Luther King today.

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