But what is palpable for the first time in my generation (or at least in my memory of presidential elections) are the possibilities and promises that are altogether new.
The dynamic that most fascinates me involves the sea change and signal effects of the country potentially electing its first woman or African-American president. I flat-out disagree with Shelby Steele who says that the Obama candidacy is exclusively about race. Obama has not run a campaign about "race." The only time "race" has been injected in this campaign was the wicked and failed attempt of the Clinton camp to pigeon-hole Obama as a "black candidate." I love that her campaign essentially imploded with that blunder in S.C. For its part, CNN has repeatedly tried to divide the electorate into ethnic enclaves and ask who "owns" which group. The discussions about "race" have all been abominable, and the Democratic primary campaign itself has defied all the conventional wisdom. Men and women are as likely to vote for either Obama or Clinton, they're open-minded to the extent that Obama is winning majorities in demographics the pundits say he should lose. White men vote for Obama. And guess what? Hispanics are not a monolith either. And many of the Congressional Black Caucus elites have publicly and confidently been in favor of the Clinton campaign all along.
This presidential election is not about "race" in the sense that anyone is running publicly on some racial platform or identifying themselves exclusively with the causes of this or that racial group. And yet, this campaign, particularly if Obama is elected, will do more to (a) advance the cause of equality and opportunity (at least in its signal effects) than anything I can think of; and (b) do more to upset all of our racial categories and stratagems than anything else.
Advancing Equality. If Obama is elected, what my mama told me for years over the kitchen table in an effort to motivate my school performance and expand my sense of the possible, "You can even be president of the U.S. if you want to be," will have been realized vicariously in Obama's successful bid.
And can I be honest? This is probably the only thing my mama ever told me that neither she or I believed. I got her point; strive and achieve and let no one hold you back. But perhaps the insertion of that four-letter word--"even"--betrayed an exaggeration she and I both recognized but never admitted out loud. I never daydreamed about the oval office the way I daydreamed about hitting that last second fade-away jumper to win the NBA finals... or even the way I daydreamed about being a college professor. The presidency was more than daydreaming; it was mythic. And now, in my lifetime, there stands a man who happens to be 'black' by social definition making not only a credible run but a compelling run for the presidency. Perhaps you didn't know that black parents for decades have tried to motivate their children with the promise that they can be president of the U.S. if they set their minds to it. And perhaps you didn't know that black children and parents for decades have entirely doubted the possibility of that ever really happening. So, perhaps you haven't recognized the depths of the signal effects of a possible President Barack Obama. I do. And though I think she probably mis-spoke, I know what Michelle Obama means when she said, "For the first time I am proud of my country." Certainly there are lots of other ways that I (and I would assume she) am proud of my country, but for a lot of Americans there is nothing quite like this candidacy to stir genuine and deep pride.Upsetting the Phalanx of "Race". Not only am I proud of my country, and proud in this moment, but I am proud of how Obama has conducted himself and how the country has responded. Here's what I think is happening in part: very fundamental assumptions about identity and allegiance are being realigned. Personally, if this is an accurate assessment, the re-alignment of racial attitudes and interaction would be an important enough issue to cast a vote for Obama.
The old, conventional wisdom demanded that a candidate declare his racial loyalty from the outset. Willie Horton could be trotted out to coalesce white voters based on anti-black fear. An African-American candidate had to prove that he was "down" in all the ways black hegemony required. Not surprisingly, the day Obama announced his candidacy, he was criticized by the likes of Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, Al Sharpton and a host of others participating in Smiley's "State of Black America" conference. Why? Obama had broken racial political ranks from the onset. He had not bowed the knee to baals of black public and political opinion. So, his "blackness" was summarily called into question.
And nothing could have been more beneficial to Barack Obama's campaign and to the soul of the American electorate than that he should from the outset be racially ambiguous. After all, his mother is white and his father African. Even in his genesis he calls into question the "one drop rule" and its social artifacts. And he invites an honest ownership of all Americans--white, brown, yellow and black. Just looking at him places an explosive charge at the base of the racial phalanx in America. Steele has called Obama "A Bound Man." IMHO, Obama may be the only free man in America. And his candidacy is setting millions of others free.
And he's had the nerve of channeling not only MLK, but also John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and of comparing his strategy to build a large majority with Ronald Reagan [depending on your political orientation, you can hold your breath or your nose here at this comparison]. He has frankly dismissed all the conventions except one, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...." Leaving aside his policies for a moment (and it will be important to pick them back up for scrutiny), Barack Obama has conducted himself as though he believes that equality as human beings is real and that being judged by the character's content is a better litmus test than being judged by racial categories and allegiances.
What's happening as whites, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans pull the lever for Barack Obama? Many things. Some people just want to vote against President Bush or whomever is the likely Republican candidate. But honestly, those folks will do that just as easily with Hillary Clinton. Some will be voting for a policy position; but again, they would be making the same vote whichever Democratic nominee is on the ballot.
What I think we're seeing in large measure with Barack Obama is the American way of deposing dictators and fighting revolutions. Only the dictator is the small-minded racial and political genie that has for so long lived bottled up in the American mind. Well, the genie may be out of the bottle and I know what three wishes I'll make: (1) the redefinition of personal identity which puts "race" or ethnicity in its proper perspective and place; (2) the advancement of opportunity at the highest level for all; and (3) the advancement of the gospel which finally and eternally remakes man and promotes him to the highest glories in Christ.
These are reflections, not necessarily an endorsement. As I said earlier, voters need to scrutinize the man's proposed policy directions. But these are excited reflections; we live in an exciting time. Obama excites people and he excites a sense of the possible with people. Now, having been excited, let's not leave it to Obama to fulfill our hopes. Let's live out of our better selves, which for Christians is to live in Christ. But not even sinners are as bad as they could be. And something about the Obama campaign reminds them of what is good and hopeful in people who are made in the image of God.