The leader of the free world is a black man. Yes, thank you, I do enjoy playing the role of Captain Obvious. So much has been said and written about the meaning of this and how far America has come in making this choice. But there is a sinister side to the top job being filled by an African American that has surfaced recently in discussions among white Americans that is endangering the progress we have made.
Increasingly there are email threads and discussions being held about how this is obviously the end of racism because a black man now occupies the highest office in the land. As though somehow this is the capstone moment to the civil rights movement that indicates some kind of closure—that the struggle has come to an end. I imagine black Americans taking issue with this notion, and rightfully so, but what I’m referring to is an attitude displayed at the water cooler that must be acknowledged and talked about.
There have always been black leaders in this country that transcended politics and represented the race struggle in our society. Throughout this national blemish, and after the time of Frederick Douglas, there was usually more than one leader who represented black America. Booker T. Washington’s influence in American black history is undeniable but even in his time his methods were challenged by fellow black leaders, most notably W.E.B DuBois. Decades later the civil rights movement would also have leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. who carried the civil rights issue forward into American consciousness but from different perspectives.
Boxing is my favorite sport as much for how closely it parallels American politics. The civil rights movement evolved through larger-than-life figures who galvanized not only the black population but all of America. The Jack Johnson era gave way to the Joe Louis era. Both men were leapfrogged in our consciousness by a man who would electrify the world. Muhammad Ali did more to raise the profile of African Americans all over the world than perhaps any other figure until Barack Obama.
So what happens when the man who captured the imagination of black America captures the imaginations of us all? Barack Obama no longer uniquely belongs to the African American race like the leaders who paved the way before him. Barack Obama belongs to the world. The man, his family and everything he stands for now screams “America” and it is how the world will identify with us for at least the next four years. If we were all cowboys with a swagger and a ‘shoot first ask questions later’ attitude for the past eight years, we are now part of the Obama movement.
White America was prepared to accept this reality by participating in this choice but it is already coming at a price. I have received email threads about white pride from very normal and respectable people and had conversations with people who now assume that the civil rights struggle has come to an end. But the way in which we speak about race in this country is a strange dance with very particular rules of engagement, though they may be unwritten. Jokes about African Americans told by white people are still told with a sly glance over the shoulder or allowed to be only spoken loudly by black comedians. What I have heard more than anything are comments like, “affirmative action is obviously over” and “no more favoritism, we’re all on equal footing.”
America, we need to talk about this… Openly. Your thoughts?