Thursday, November 6, 2008

A future better than our past

By DeWayne Wickham

How did America get to this point?

Some 220 years ago, it adopted a Constitution that counted blacks as just three-fifths of a person. President Theodore Roosevelt was widely condemned 113 years later for having a black man dine with him in the White House. And now, the country has voted, giving a black family a 4-year lease for that great edifice at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How is it that only 43 years after Congress struggled to enact legislation giving federal protection to the voting rights of blacks that Barack Obama — a black man — could be elected president of this majority-white nation?

Pundits and historians will, no doubt, dissect Obama's winning campaign strategy and Republican John McCain's failed candidacy in search of answers to the key questions, but they will likely be looking in the wrong places.

The answers lie within the discovery that voters made about the campaign of Sen. Obama.

To be sure, Obama ran a brilliant campaign. He was masterful in his use of new media — text messages, blogs and YouTube's free video-sharing — to raise a massive amount of money and bring millions of new voters into the political process. And his message of change — coming as it did from a 47-year-old first-term senator who is the son a black man and a white woman — trumped the change message of McCain, who looked and sounded very much like the linear successor to President Bush.

More than anything else, the thing that lifted Obama into the Oval Office was his ability to convince sizeable chunks of voters that he could give them something they desperately wanted — something they yearned for above all.

Whites who voted for Obama want their country back. They still recall Florida in 2000, when a botched vote count put the outcome of the presidential election in the hands of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which promptly gave Bush the keys to the White House.

Their country was taken from them by the deception of the neo-cons who took this nation to war in Iraq, by the overreach of the USA Patriot Act, and by the greed of the Wall Street robber barons whose actions gutted the stock portfolios and retirement accounts of millions of Americans — and threatened to topple the world's financial system.

Of course, blacks, too, were hurt by these things, but the long history of their disenfranchisement left them with a more deeply rooted need. They wanted a radical break from the past. They wanted, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, a future that "ain't what it used to be" — a future in which being judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is more than an empty civil-rights catchphrase.

Obama's White House campaign gave blacks reason to believe that that future could be now. It gave them hope that Jim Crow Jr. — the kinder, gentler form of racism that replaced Jim Crow after the victories of the civil rights-era — is in full retreat.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," the president-elect said in his victory speech Tuesday.

In creating a winning coalition, the blacks and whites who voted for Obama arrived at the same American crossroad from decidedly different directions. And when they got there, they embraced the vision of a man whose promise of change offered them that which McCain didn't — a nation that is far better than its past.

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