Yes WE did!
I was just 10 years old when America’s cities started to burn. In 1968, when downtown after downtown erupted in violence following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my family lived just across the city line from Philadelphia. There was concern and real fear that chaos would ensue and envelop our community. The anxiety was rooted in the same issue that caused the riots, that motivated Dr. King and that created the conditions he fought against – race.
So my eyes teared up last night when Barack Obama took the stage last night as President-Elect of the United States. The emotion did not spring from naïve hope that racism is defeated. If anything, this campaign has showed that racism and xenophobia continue to plague us – perhaps quieter and less socially acceptable, but still forces to be dealt with. No, the tears came from the fact that we could, as a nation, look those forces in the face and choose not to be driven by them. That is the hope that we need.
I cannot begin to imagine the emotion that John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and other veterans of the civil rights movement must feel, going in one lifetime from being subject to Jim Crow to seeing an African-American elected by a commanding margin to the highest office in the land. As a white male who observed some of these struggles, and who wrestles with the subtle racism still embedded in parts of our culture and in myself, I am moved by how far we have come, and hopeful that this election can help us go the distance we still need to go.
I have been impressed with Barack Obama since I saw him speak at a rally in Levittown during the April primary. I was drawn then to the quiet, steady courage that he displayed during the entire campaign, even through the financial meltdown that drove investors, politicians and citizens alike into reactive spasms of panic. I saw in him then, and see even more now, that he gets the changes in the world that require consensus building instead of unilateral bullying, that call for responsible sacrifice and sustainability over opportunism, that demand that we work for the common good rather than hope goods trickle down to the commoners.
This is a kairos moment in our planet’s history. Our problems – environmental, economic, and political – can only be solved by recognizing that we are all in this together, that the sides of the aisles and the ends of the earth are inextricably bound together. Our greatness as a nation depends on our ability to release and nourish the potential of all of our citizens, not just the privileged and powerful. Barack Obama seems poised to move us in that direction.
I was impressed by his common-sense appeal to shared responsibility, that if we all sacrifice and all work hard we can make a better nation and a better world. The last 30 years have been marked by policies that have discouraged Americans from engaging in making a better world. Let us run the country and the economy, the rich and powerful have said. You keep working hard (and harder, and harder) and we’ll make sure the benefits flow down to you. After 9/11, this philosophy reached its absurd conclusion – taking on adventurous wars while asking those given the most to sacrifice less. This led not to real prosperity but to a disastrous economic meltdown that threatens most families and our national security.
I saw in April, and continued to see last night, that despite his barrier-breaking achivement, Barack Obama was not a “black” candidate and will not be an “African-American” president. He has both made promises to and challenged all Americans – rich, middle class, and poor. His hope is of an America that is fairer, more just, and a better citizen of the world – core values that have been driven underground by our fear in the last few years. With roots in both Kenya and Kansas, he is not “one of them” but “one of us.”