President Obama

Barack Obama, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rebirth of the dream.

At this writing, Barack Obama seems set to win the most important position in the nation and the world. In June, when he won the nomination, I wrote “The Long View,” about how, in anthropological perspective, history had been made.

An African-American had become a major party’s presidential nominee, and a woman almost had. Regardless of the outcome, I had lived to see what I could only barely imagine happening in my lifetime. And now, if I live another day, I will see a black man win the presidency.

Tragically, we members of Homo sapiens are wired for fear and contempt of those different from us. We came up from our ape ancestors in small face-to-face groups that, if chimpanzees are any guide, committed acts of violence against those in neighboring groups, including killing them.

Social psychologists have shown that it is trivially easy to get people, even children, to identify so strongly with even an artificial “in” group that we soon hate and mistreat those in other groups. Our natural groups throughout history were based on family, then clan, then tribe, and finally, nation, religion, and race.

The circle widened, but the dangerous emotions lingered on. “He is not like me” is a perception, but what we do next with that information is what counts, and what we did through the ages is nothing to be proud of. The perception was predictably invoked in this election cycle but it didn’t work as it was supposed to.

Obama was just too hard to pigeonhole: A coffee-with-cream-colored black man with a beloved white mom and grandma. A man with a strange name who sounded like every American, only smarter. A Harvard lawyer whose dad was a Kenyan goatherd. An androgynous-looking, latte-sipping elitist who played hoops on the streets of Chicago and helped save desperate children lost in those same streets. Obama is such a strange amalgam that the phrase “He is not like me” could have been said by anyone. Perhaps that is why it morphed in the end into “Maybe he is like me.”

To say that the world’s eyes are on him and us is putting it very mildly. Contrary to some claims, America is one of the least racist of societies, but now we are getting a chance to prove that beyond doubt. Try to imagine an election in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, or Japan that gives a black or brown person the supreme reins of power. The thought is laughable, except in America, where it is happening.

Saturday I picked up an old friend at the airport—Dale Rosengarten, a Harvard-trained historian of African-American arts and of Southern Jewry. As I always do when a visitor to Atlanta hasn’t been there, I took her to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, the most moving place to visit in our city.

Driving through the neighborhood it is in, you are quickly disabused of the thought that racial equality has been achieved. But as we walked along the reflecting pool in the sunlight on a lovely, crisp fall day and saw the mixture of white and black visitors, we also could not deny that there have been changes.

We stood before the dual crypt—Coretta Scott King is now beside him—and read the words Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last. How much this election would have meant to him! I was at the “I have a dream” speech, when many blacks could not even vote, and just over forty-five years later I cast a vote that would help lift a black man-still a baby in 1963—to the presidency.

There, between the crypt and the Eternal Flame, two white men came up to us. Would we mind being interviewed for Belgian radio? About Obama? In this particular spot?
We had walked past Dr. King’s birth home and read the date in bronze. “He would have been almost 80,” Dale said. We picked up that thread in the interview, and I said I thought even he would have been amazed to have lived to see a black president. I also said with a smile that Obama might be King reborn. In his charming French accent, the interviewer said, “The dream reborn.”

Dale—who, with her husband Ted had integrated a South Carolina middle school with their own two sons—talked about Obama as a transformative force in American history. Asked what I thought the impact on race relations would be, I expressed doubt that Obama could make huge changes in economic racial inequality, especially in this economy, but believed the psychological impact would be tremendous—especially for kids, white or black. And I gestured toward the teenagers gazing at the crypt.

This great fallen hero will never be supplanted or forgotten, but as he himself would have wished and as he did indeed dream, the focus will now shift to a man whose race is ambiguous, and yet is easily black enough to live the dream. He will face some of the toughest challenges of any recent president. But his presence in the White House will let the world know not that racial inequality has ended, but that the dream is becoming real. President Obama will be the point man for a new kind of world, in which the human species learns to say, “He is not like me . . . and yet he is.”

As we walked away we heard raucous noises; our Belgian friends were in the street recording the joyful voices of young people on a big campaign truck advancing slowly: “O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!” No doubt they knew they were passing Dr. King’s resting place, but their eyes were on the future.


  1. Suzi says:

    Beautiful prose as always, but one thing bothers me. It is tragically easy to categorize any opposition to Obama as racism–not stated here, but too easy to imply. To some of us, not seduced by his grace and glibness, the “otherness” about Obama is his political stance–far more “liberal” than some are comfortable with, far less forthcoming about his beliefs and his strategies to achieve his goals.
    I’d hope (probably hopelessly) that those of us old enough to remember the schoolhouse showdowns and Lester Maddox’s axe handle justice have learned a lesson about who really is the “other.” After all, George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and yes, that most monstrous historical figure in memory, Adolf Hitler, were all pale-skinned like me. I’d hope too that anyone comprehending the great privilege of voting in this country would not waste that vote on the color of a person’s skin or the shape of his/her nose or which church pew cradles his/her bottom on whatever Sabbath he/she chooses to observe (or none at all, if that is possible in the US today).
    Whoever wins, I sincerely hope it won’t be because of racially-motivated votes, pro or con, but because of the chosen candidate’s perceived abilities, talents and values. Affirmative action is a bad precedent to set. (That said, it’s time we had black, Jewish, and other minority executives of both sexes; maybe someday those traits won’t matter except as sidebars.)

    But Mel, as I write, another question occurs to me. If whites instinctively mistrust Obama for his blackness, how must he feel in return? Can we expect fairness, from his “white” half, at least? Or do centuries of mistreatment at the hands of Caucasians breed a feeling that will lead to unfairness in the other direction?

  2. Golda says:

    I came to this site confident that I would find interesting commentary from you about the new President-Elect. Of course, I was right. However, I think that an underlying factor in the decision to support Barack Obama is that he is “not like me”. Whether right or wrong, we expect national leaders to come from solid, stable homes and Barack did not. I can appreciate the fact that even without the nuclear family he was able to achieve so much. However “elitist” he seems, he still finds the need to go back to the Southside of Chicago he often refers to. Me on the other hand, I usually try to avoid highly urbanized and “forgotten” areas unless it’s for brief, purposeful visits. And lastly, I can’t say that there is one sport that I can honestly participate in. These examples are not meant to be an Ode to Obama but rather just emphasis on the fact that, I think part of his appeal comes from being different. I also think that being different is a value that Americans n general have pride in, but not necessarily openly. Citizens enjoy the idea that America stands in a class of its own.

    Then I have to comment on something Suzi said. It is something that I hear many people outside of the African American population say. A choice in the candidates should not be affected by race at all, whether positively or negatively. I agree, however, not in this day and age. I think when we get to a place where race is no longer included in a person’s demographics, then maybe that will be possible. Until then, people are totally justified in voting based on race. After all, I’m required to check the black box while filling out school applications. Side note: I think the “other” box just means that you’re a minority and you don’t want to say it. And mind you, Barack Obama is not the first African American to run for president, but when people realized that what he had to say was plausible and that he was a good match for the GOP pick, then race just helped to enhance the choice. Whether or not he turns out to be an effective president is irrelevant. His purpose was to begin tearing down a barrier. I think he just made future elections more competitive. I wouldn’t be surprised if we started seeing all kinds of people from places we never imagined start running for the position. That just means that the winner has to have an impact on more people, and for me, that means that we really are a democracy.

    Hopefully, there were not too many ideas coming out in once sentence to get the gist…

  3. Dear Suzi and Golda,

    It’s wonderful to read both your posts, full of subtlety, complexity, and a certain amount of doubt, but also full of hope for the future. I have little doubt that Obama’s image of his white mother nurturing and teaching him will continue to prevent him from being biased against whites. Yet his election shows the world that you don’t have to be white for white America to admire and put their trust in you. That, as Golda says, “means that we really are a democracy.” But I’m afraid that realism tells me that he must do at least moderately well as president in order for the White House to remain open to all in the future. I try to keep separate in my mind the tremendous achievement the election represents for our democracy from the dire need we are facing as a nation and a planet for better leadership. Obama has won the first battle, but he is only beginning the second, and he frankly does not have much relevant experience. He is facing formidable obstacles. For all our sakes, I wish him well.

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