Some things are going to change. Most won't change over night or in front of our eyes. "Obama" is not a magical incantation. The presence of Barack Obama and his family in the White House, however, is going to lead us to have to rethink how we view our ideas of "race," nationality and ethnicity.
November 4, 2009 does mark, as the President-elect himself has suggested, the dawning of a new day. It may signal the real beginnings of a post-racial era. Let's pause for a moment and think a bit about that term. "Post-racial" does NOT mean that race doesn't matter any longer. It does NOT mean that somehow we are all struck colorblind in any literal or metaphorical way. If we look at Obama's own words: "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," we can see a call to wrestle anew with the demons of color and caste, but in a way that avoids the pitfalls of stale notions of self and other. It does mean, though, that we can and will need to start thinking about "race" in different and more sophisticated ways. For some, it will seem nothing but "natural" to see a African American family in the White House; for others it will take considerable getting used to. As we look at the Obamas there day after day, we are not going to somehow forget that they are African American, but rather come to understand that African Americans can, have and will continue to occupy a variety of social positions. Our snap judgments and associations based on color will necessarily be complicated. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" was racial; President Obama standing in the middle of the G8 group portrait is post-racial.
"Post-racial" means that we begin to unpack all our unconscious racial baggage and see beyond black and white a simplistic binary opposites. "Post-racial" implies that we have to understand that there isn't ONLY black and white that define American social relations. "Post-racial" doesn't mean that we emphasize that Obama is bi-racial, which seems to be a favorite subject of the media. Rather it suggests that we need to look at how his base of support comes from a coalition of black, brown, white and young, and we need to grasp how these are not competing groups but categories with overlapping interests. American politics isn't about getting the goodies for "your people" but about delivering on promises for a variety of communities in need.
A community organizer understands and negotiates the differences within his or her community in the pursuit of a larger goal. Now Barack Obama has the biggest community organizer job of all. It's a job that will not only potentially realign racial reasoning within the United States but also around the world. Whether we realize it or not, when we selected Obama for President, we issues both a promise and a challenge to nations around the globe. Obama's election represents a promise in that it actually affirms that belief that in America one can prosper and succeed in spite of, rather than simply because of, class, race or ethnic background. The ecstatic global reaction to November 4 genuinely celebrates the promise of the United States as a nation where an immigrant's child can become President. Over time that celebration will also morph into a challenge. If Americans, with our history of racial oppression, can move to this point, can other nations around the work also depart from their own histories of racial and ethnic supremacy? Can an Asian become Prime Minister of the UK? Can an ethnic minority become the leader of Malaysia? A post-racial America might truly thrive in the context of a trans-national reimagination of race, difference and power.
If, as W.E.B. DuBois presciently states, "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line," then it falls to us to think about how we, in the twenty-first century, might benefit from developing a new vocabulary, a new set of attitudes, and a new set of social relationships to remedy what DuBois saw as a "problem." It's risky, even scary, because we may very well have to abandon almost instinctual anchoring ideas about our own identities in an effort to progress. We could be called upon to lose ourselves before we can begin to find ourselves. But that's the promise of post-racial change. It's what many young people have already begun to embrace as the natural course of life, and now that a Black guy is in charge, we may just be ready to let go of that past.