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On November 5th 2008, I awoke with lingering pictures in my mind of the election of Barack Hussein Obama, the first African American, to the highest office in the land. On November 4th, I, like countless other African Americans, was filled with uncontainable feelings of elation and awe at the historic significance of that moment. I watched as my son seemed to grow in stature right before my eyes with the announcement “Barack has won!” I listened as he expressed a renewed sense of purpose and belief about life’s possibilities. I was surprised to see the outpouring of emotion in him, this enormous surge of energy brought on by a mysterious power born purely and simply of hope. He was not alone in his enthusiasm, the phone began to ring, and soon text and email messages began to pour in amidst radio and television reports recounting the landslide victory.
This was to be an unprecedented election which would draw an unprecedented reaction from those both at home and abroad. The genuine surprise was understandable given the country’s more than 230 year legacy of all but exclusive white male political domination and its history of slavery, colonization and segregation. Though for the most part, pleasantly shocked, the American public was thrown into a state of disequilibrium from which they are yet to recover. On November 4th Americans were faced with the very real possibility of America becoming a world leader in ways other than through the use of military force. With the election of Barack Obama America once again has an opportunity to make good on its declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I can scarcely imagine how my parents, born and raised in the segregated state of Louisiana, would have felt had they lived to witness the election of a black man to the presidency. It is impossible to approach such a momentous event without remembering the multitude of struggles and suffering that allowed it to occur. From whatever vantage point one wishes to observe it, this is truly a remarkable occasion in the annals of American history. It signals a profound change in the social, political and moral structure of a country unmatched by its patriotic pride and simultaneously burdened by a lengthy tradition of racial intolerance and discrimination.
What does having an African American as president mean to the struggle for racial equality and justice? In his concession speech Senator John McCain, alluded to the belief that the election of Barack Obama signalized the end to “racial bigotry” and the full instatement of equal rights of “citizenry” to all Americans. With all that we know about history, human behavior and the role it plays in social advancement and change, we must not be so naive as to proffer the election of Barack Obama as evidence of the end of racism in America.
This election has not changed the over—representation of African Americans in the criminal justice system and the police use of deadly force against black males; nor did it eliminate the academic achievement gap; nor stem the disproportionate numbers of African Americans finding themselves burdened by poverty. The election of a black man as president alone, however grand and noble can not reverse the wrongs which have been committed as the result of ongoing racist practices and policies. The truth is that no singular event political or otherwise can change centuries of neglect and injury, the very injury that made a Black man winning the presidency an anomaly.
However difficult or bleak the racial strife has been or continues to be, the level of hope has indeed been elevated with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Somehow we were all made better by his appointment and each of us felt it in our own unique ways. The sheer joy engendered among Americans young and old, from all backgrounds and especially African Americans, has been raised to a palpable level. Perhaps parallel with this hope and joy is an even stronger desire for change and the ever illusive justice and peace so long sought after. Unequaled by times past America now sits squarely on the world stage as the international community looks on anxiously and eagerly anticipates a positive movement towards global peace and solidarity.
I celebrate this achievement and humbly recognize the significance it holds for both past and present generations. I look towards the future with guarded optimism and with fresh new questions and ideas about how and what we as African Americans must continue to do to move forward. Perhaps more importantly, I question what America as a nation must do next to lead all nations towards co-existing as a world community.