On the eve of the President’s inauguration, I can safely let the sigh escape from my chest, a deep exhale of relief that we escaped a Romney/Ryan administration and their consequent taking of the country back(wards). From the administration of Reagan onwards, momentum has been building in a movement to revert the country to its constitutional origins: of, for, and by monied white men. And while this is certainly nothing new, candidates and elected officials of the past at least had the decency to pretend to equality. Not so anymore. With the election of our first black President, it seemed like the country was turning a chapter entitled “post-racism.” Yet what resulted was quite the opposite, with the right digging in their heels and ushering in the “Philosophy of No” and culminating in Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP in July, blatantly dismissing an entire segment of the population because they could offer him little political capital. The right said “No” to anything the President proposed, be it fair pay for women or compensation for the first responders of September eleventh. We could argue that the divisiveness has roots beyond the specific kink of Mr. Obama’s hair, and some of it might be, but not all of it. Not by far.
It can’t be easy for the Romneys, blindsided by their loss as they were. The Fox pundits as well, though they’ve had time to recoup now, to double down on their anti-left propaganda. And Congress, under the watchful and exhausted eye of John Boehner, has to reprioritize, since denying Obama a second term has failed in spectacular fashion. Now they just have to pull out any stops to defeat his legacy, to deny him any legislative victories, and if it continues to come at the expense of the constituency that voted them in, so be it. They have an endgame in mind; they’re looking at the big picture. If all goes right (right, get it?), they won’t have destroyed the country beyond repair. And when they get back into office, the magnitude of their success will be two-fold: they can blame the destruction on the Obama administration and exact greater power in creating positions to help clean up the mess. Hey, it will create jobs, right? Right?
What stuck in my mind in the days after the election were not necessarily the sputtering of Karl Rove or the disingenuous conciliatory speech of Romney, but a statement uttered by Long Island’s own Bill O’Reilly. “Obama wins,” he spit, “because it’s not a traditional America anymore.” He went on to speak about the white establishment losing its position in the majority, about the black and hispanic votes, women. His face mourned the loss of a country he’d known. I felt for him.
Because he was right.
Traditional society had walls. It was segregated into sects with borders, color-coded in socio-economic terms. We had the pride of a country whose leaders were for the most part homogenous and our brown people were cared for as best we could. But we had expectations: they needed to speak our language, to buck up and to thank the establishment for the spoils of what it meant to be American. Yet, somehow, that wasn’t enough. Some people started to feel “entitled.”
The Internet age ushered in the modern era where people began to see over the walls separating “us” and “them.” A global economy brought with it the unintended consequences of a global society, multi-languaged, multicolored and multi-ethnic. The model of success wasn’t the white-bread version of the trust fund baby boy being inducted into his father’s fraternity based on donations to the alumni association, making inbred connections among the masters of the universe. The pool so small, in fact, that the name Bush is being floated as we speak as a 2016 candidacy. It started to look more Horatio Alger than anybody ever intended. Black leaders in business and politics started to pave a way, but was America ready for a black man in the white house?
Gone now is the pretense to the political correctness of Clinton’s nineties. Clinton, whom Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison deemed “America’s first black President” due to the ferocity with which he was hunted and treated by the establishment during the Whitewater scandal, ushered in a time when derogatory language went underground and was whispered behind the backs of hands. Now, twenty years after he first took office, the culture has shifted so decisively that it is a faux pas not to utter a racist slur, but to accuse someone else of racism. With commentators like Rush Limbaugh feeling comfortable making statements like, “The NAACP booed Romney because he’s white,” and Bill O’Reilly lamenting the diluting of the power of the white vote, we find ourselves at a crossroads. We can take this country back(wards) or, as Obama supporters shouted from streets and eaves and stadiums, we can move “Forward.”
Because once upon a time, a brown child of a single mother on welfare with an un-American father, who was raised on a far-away island and spent some formative years in Indonesia, dared to think that maybe this was his country too. He thought that maybe he had something to offer this modern America, that is neither black nor white, Eastern or Western, monied or in need, but all of it. All of it.
And so America begins a new tradition. And the Bill O’Reillys of the world live unhappily ever after.