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Michele Elam

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Why Black Firsts Matter

Posted: 11/09/11 04:17 PM ET

Forty-five years ago this week, in a hot, crowded ballroom, a black boy sat atop his father's shoulders, peering above hundreds of others waiting to hear the newly elected African American senator from Massachusetts give his acceptance speech. Edward Brooke's win that night made him the first African American to serve in the Senate since Hiram Revels' brief term nearly a century earlier. As the boy strained to see Brooke, a white man leaned over to the boy and told him what he already intuitively knew: "you are witnessing history."

My husband vividly remembers this moment atop his father's shoulders, as does his father, the Honorable Judge Harry J. Elam -- himself a black "first" when he became Chief Justice of the Boston Municipal Court of Massachusetts in 1978. Across generations and races in that room and across the country, Brooke's victory represented nothing less than a paradigm shift, a tilt in the political universe that had previously seemed impossible.

Some may argue that this anniversary is especially relevant during this campaign season because Brooke was not just a black senator but a black Republican senator, representative of an emerging but powerful club of black conservatives, from Clarence Thomas to Herman Cain. But before Brooke gets recruited as proof that the Republican party has long been diverse, it is essential to note that "Republican" in his time was equated with "Lincoln's party" and, moreover, Brooke's progressive policies, including his advocacy for fair housing and low-income safety nets, make him look almost left-of-center Democrat by today's standards.

So then why continue to tally these "firsts"? Wikipedia may keep a running tab on "African American firsts" but apart from maintaining a historical record, why should they really matter at all in this so-called post-Civil Rights, post-race era?

Certainly, there are legitimate criticisms of our tendency to break out the champagne each time someone breaches the color barrier. Some may rightfully complain, for instance, that this emphasis on racial "firsts" risks reinforcing the notion of history as a series of "great men," individuals who just appear on the scene, sui generis, their noteworthiness sometimes unintentionally erasing the names and contributions of all those before who made their "first" possible.

Others might claim that "firsts" don't matter at all: they are purely token, or worse, serve to pacify those agitating for broader institutional or systemic change. In fact, some argue that firsts are no proof that social progress is inexorable: after all, Revels, the first black senator, stayed the first for a very, very long time. The political climate following the end of Reconstruction became increasingly repressive: the turn of the century into the early 20th is often considered a nadir in black life in the U.S., with the rise in lynching, the political mainstreaming of the Ku Klux Klan, the federal institutionalization of repressive legislation ensuring separate and unequal treatment of black people.

The 96 years between these two firsts is a stark reminder of the fitfulness of beginnings. Whatever metaphors we might choose to explain history's arc, it is not an inevitable march forward nor a cyclical spiral upwards. Sometimes history is a möbius strip, a changing-same continuously looping back on itself.

This is not to say that firsts can never represent progress; it just means that we cannot take for granted that change necessarily happens on its own or that any first -- even as important and remarkable as the election of Edward Brooke or, for that matter, Barack Obama -- will provide the momentum for change.

It turns out that the social change we ask firsts to spearhead does not come easy, and not simply because of political resistance. We now know that firsts also face psychological barriers to fully realizing their potential. As social psychologist, Claude Steele, suggests, "stereotype threat," the mere recognition that your presence is unlikely and possibly unwelcome, is enough to lower ability and performance, negatively impacting physical and mental abilities -- and Steele's studies document that this effect holds true not just for black people but for all racial groups, including whites, if they perceive they might be stereotyped in a particular situation.

This revelation that we must understand the subtler psychological as well as institutional challenges to change is nowhere more important than in these days of global uprisings and Occupy movements. It may seem that these collective expressions of a desire for change are the antithesis of celebrations of individual "firsts." But in fact they are two sides of the same coin because firsts represent more than individual success. Firsts signify both personal and collective achievement; they inspire generational and communal uplift. They hoist the boy onto his father's shoulders.


So it is important, even perhaps urgent, that we mark inaugural firsts like Brooke's, not only so we of the new millennium don't take for granted that such cracks in the status quo happen inevitably or easily. But also so we continue to learn better how to make that hard-won change keep -- so these firsts can move us forward to the nexts.