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Missing Obama’s Meaning

Barack Obama’s being elected President of the United States serves as an example of what talented Americans can achieve if they work hard, regardless of race or social status, right? Right?

[Political activist, Rev. Lennox] Yearwood said Obama’s election inspired a lot of young blacks to vote and get involved in the campaign. He is now encouraging young activists to use the same enthusiasm to lobby the government for more jobs in poor neighborhoods and better health care for those who can’t afford it.

If Obama’s election is seen foremost as a catalyst for minority communities to ask the government for more things, then the significance of November 4, 2008 will have been squandered in the most tragically ironic fashion. Obama’s talents flourished, in part, because they were free of the insulting and demoralizing effects of handouts. Whatever you may think of him, Obama is clearly a man who spent his time focused on what he could accomplish, not on what he couldn’t. His success is also attributable to the fact that institutional racism in America is not the barricade to opportunity it once was.

In John McWhorter’s list of things “Obama means for Black America,” he included,

the idea that for black people, underdoggism is higher awareness is obsolete.

One of the strangest things about reading black writings of the old days is the ingrained optimism. W.E.B. DuBois in the aughts highlighted blacks making the best of themselves despite obstacles. Zora Neale Hurston bristled at being expected to write of lynchings rather than self-regard and triumph. Many black literati disowned Richard Wright’s Native Son as too pessimistic.

But in the late ’60s, just as segregation and bigotry began a rapid retreat, it became fashionable to treat black identity as plangent, wary of celebration where whites could hear it, glumly obsessed with tabulating ever-fraying strands of racism. No matter how successful many blacks are, no matter how many interracial couples there are, no matter how few “firsts” are left, we always have much longer to go than we have come. A shoe still hasn’t dropped.

Well, it just did.

A black man is president, and black Americans seem to feel like it really means something. As such, we will expect a sea change in the tone of what is considered the authentic black voice. Pollyanna, no. But it will be positive and constructive–as Obama has been on the topic of race–in the way that anyone would assume of a group that truly seeks progress.

Many have supposed that what black America needs was a second revolution in how white people think. Barack Obama’s election showed that white people’s thoughts weren’t so retrograde after all. White people voted with those thoughts–and now, even without a revolution, much of what black America needs to happen will be a reality.

It would be nice if a new type of social activism takes shape after the fashion of our new President-elect. Non-demagogic, not obsessed with victimhood, and fiercely focused on individual achievement. In fact, severely allergic to underdoggism.



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