In the next few posts, I hope to explain why. There are at least four reasons, all of which have to do with the disappointment that comes from sensing potentially seismic historical and cultural shifts for the positive evaporating in the ugliness of this election as soon as the presumptive nominees were clear. The sense of hope and interest that once filled this race for me has gone up in smoke with the politics-as-usual campaigning of both parties.
Today we begin with loss #1 (not in importance, just in order of the posts): the forfeited opportunity to think careful and prayerfully about personal and group identity.
The prospect of a "racially ambiguous" president offered (offers??) the country the opportunity to think afresh about what it means to be an American, what relevance ethnicity or "race" have, and the broadening horizon available to all groups. A potential "President Obama" calls into question the extent of any continuing legacy of centuries of race-based social and political attitude and action. The viability of an Obama campaign could have put front and center the question, "What does it mean now to be an African American?" In what ways has our (i.e., American) understanding of racial identification, racial prejudice, group opportunity, and equality changed?
I'm not saying that all those things would have in fact changed with the election of a President Obama. I'm saying that the viable candidacy of an African American could have productively put those questions on the table were it not for the usual political hullabaloo that now occupies the airwaves. As it is, the cloud of negative politics overshadows anything resembling a healthy national reflection on these things.
In my opinion, the Iowa primaries were significant in signaling the possibility of an ethnic candidate not being "the ethnic candidate" but an American candidate. The moment Obama won Iowa, the country took serious notice of the candidate, but could also have taken serious notice of itself. What happened in Iowa? Potentially the first penetrating crack in a racial phalanx that has stood guard over the "highest office in the land" since the country's founding. And the fact that the Obama primary campaign successfully wooed Iowa caucus goers to support him was a testament to Iowans as much as it was to a brilliant primary strategy. The Obama campaign's focus on the caucus (a delicious word irony that I'll pass on now) states would have been a futile strategy were it not for white Iowans and others who discarded conventional wisdom and grabbed hold to hope for a different a different kind of candidate signifying by appearance if not by words a racially healthy future.
South Carolina got ugly with the former "champions" of African American causes.
Then came Philadelphia. Forced now to address "race" by an embarrassing pastor and a rival campaign that interjected "race" wherever it could, Barack Obama delivered to the country not just an excellent speech on "race" but, more importantly, an opportunity to discuss it as Americans looking forward, not backward. Some reviled the speech as the "throw grandma under the bus" speech. Some proclaimed it as an American speech as significant as Gettysburg or I Have A Dream. In potential, the latter group was correct. In my opinion, the only significant failing in an otherwise brilliant and brave speech was Mr. Obama did not flatly say that "race" does not exist. Had he done that.... Well, who knows what would have happened had he done that!
But it wasn't Obama's job to carry the mail on this issue. It was our job to do so. We haven't.
Political pundits scurried to obscure the opportunity. Too many of us joyfully pranced off after them. Perhaps we were aided in our side-taking by Obama's serious blunders days later. But having received the opportunity, we squandered it.
From Philadelphia to "hot mic" comments from Jesse Jackson to the present CNN obsession with "race" and the election (an obsession that seems to only have grown more rabid since S.C.), the steady drip of conjecture has turned an opportunity into an obstacle. Now, it seems to me, the table has been re-set and the conversation returned to the old, tired, myopic, and ultimately unhelpful speculations about racism. Like cozy slippers and a favorite robe on a cool winter morning, we've slipped right back into the tattered familiar.
And in this case, ignored the obvious. It's silly to ask "Will white people vote for Obama once they enter the booth?" Yes. Millions of them will. Millions of them have. And the overwhelming majority of them have not done it because of the color of his skin. Whether you like his politics or not, there are an awful lot of folks who do, and they're casting their lots with him in this general election as well. That's still the main story if we want to take a racial angle. There are still millions and millions of Americans of every hue prepared to happily say, "Congratulation, President Obama." That's never happened in the history of the country. And focusing on the relative few who would not vote for him because of their racial bias is a great adventure in missing the point. Something new and significant is upon us. Not the election of the first African American president, but the commencement of the first significant redefinition of American identity to include all the huddled masses--black ones as well.
We like "race" because we know this devil so well. We're unprepared to pay the social and psychological costs of re-evaluating this basic and erroneous assumption about life. And so we'd rather keep hurting one another than forge new identities and allegiances.
At least that's my opinion. And that's what saddens me. That's the election discussion that almost was, and one reason why it's difficult for me to be excited about this historic campaign. Tomorrow, Lord willing, the missed opportunity to think about the role of older persons in society and culture.