Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-Election Day

The excitement has died down a bit. Being in touch with friends at home has been great – I can hear the excitement in the letters and voices, and the emails that have come in from a few unexpected places have been great. A colleague from my office in Seattle wrote to tell me:
“I think one thing this election did was to bring America back to ALL the people—the young, the old, the poor, the rich, people of color, and even those life-long Republicans who realized a change was needed… We called our son at Colorado State University last night and he was so excited, so happy, so thrilled to be part of this history with his first-time voting experience.”
He and I had had a conversation one day at work during which I voiced my doubt in the American public’s willingness to elect an African-American, but he had faith that the obviously better choice would prevail. I don’t think he ever believed that McCain could win; I wasn’t so sure. There was an article in the New Yorker about a month ago about Obama’s chances among white working-class voters in Ohio. These are people who work two and three jobs to make ends meet, people who have no health care, and who “voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, by seventeen percent in 2000 and twenty-three percent in 2004.” The article quoted a registered voter in Ohio: “I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.”

I listened to a This American Life episode that followed Obama staffers in Pennsylvania who faced the same kind of ignorance and prejudice, and another segment of that episode followed former Hillary supporters and life-long democrats who were campaigning hard for McCain. The segment about the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania focused on union workers who were trying to convince fellow union-members that Obama was the right choice for them. And when they were confronted with “I’m not going to vote for him because he’s black” which they heard repeatedly, they were trained to change the subject to the issues, although one [white] phone-bank volunteer did cheerfully first try, “well, his mother was white…”

So that’s why I wasn’t so sure. And then when he won, with the help of both Pennsylvania and Ohio, I couldn’t believe it, and I have never been so happy to be wrong. But I made the comment in my last post that maybe it was time to stop talking about the fact that our new president is a black man because “at some point, that’s got to stop mattering.” I think that was naïve of me. The more I read and talk to people post-election, the more I understand how monumental this is, and the more I realize that the U.S. electing a black man as president is huge, and worth talking about for as long as people feel like talking about it. The day after the election, Velu asked me if I was happy with the results. I told him I was very happy. He said, “I think it good for a black man to run your country. I think the world think it good for a black man to run your country.”

And then I read letter to the editor in the New Yorker. This was pre-November 4th, but after the magazine had officially endorsed Obama:

“In endorsing Obama, the editors suggest that his election ‘could not help but say something encouraging, even exhilarating, about the country, about its dedication to tolerance and inclusiveness.’ As a seventy-four-year-old African-American who was involved in the civil-rights protests in the nineteen-sixties, I, too, have drawn a connection between Obama and the journey that the United States has made in its attitudes and actions with regard to race. I remember watching as black people went to the town hall to register to vote carrying American flags; the local police jerked the flags from their hands and turned them away. My parents told us of how German soldiers detained in Arkansans were served in white-only restaurants while black soldiers in uniform were forced to go to the backs of those restaurants to get food from the take-out windows. Many civil-rights workers, black and white, died attempting to push the U.S. to live ‘the values it proclaims in the textbooks.’ The election of Barack Obama will not mean that struggles about race will be no more, nor will it erase the painful memories of my generation. But it will be a clear sign that my four-year-old granddaughter will grow up in a nation quite different from the nation that existed when I was her age. And, because of that, every American has a reason to rejoice."

Gilbert H. Caldwell
Ashbury Park, N.J.
On November 4th, 2008, Mr. Caldwell, a seventy-four-year-old African-American, and the twenty-year-old white son of my colleague at work, cast the same vote. And from what I can tell, the nation did indeed rejoice.

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