Good, and Now Back to Work: Avoiding Both Cynicism and Overconfidence in the Age of Obama

Tonight, after Barack Obama was confirmed as the nation’s president-elect, I looked in on my children, as they lay sleeping. Though they are about as politically astute as kids can be, having reached only the ages of 7 and 5, there is no way they will be able to truly appreciate what has just happened in the land they call home. They do not possess the sense of history, or indeed, even a clear understanding of what history means, so as to adequately process what happened this evening, as they slumbered. Even as our oldest cast her first grade vote for Obama in school today, and even as our youngest has become somewhat notorious for pointing to pictures of Sarah Palin on magazines and saying, “There’s that crazy lady who hates polar bears,” they remain, still, naive as to the nation they have inherited. They do not really understand the tortured history of this place, especially as regards race. Oh they know more than most–to live as my children makes it hard not to–but still, the magnitude of this occasion will likely not catch up to them until Barack Obama is finishing at least his first, if not his second term as president.

But that’s OK. Because I know what it means, and will make sure to tell them.

And before detailing what I perceive that meaning to be (both its expansiveness and limitations) let me say this, to some of those on the left–some of my friends and longtime compatriots in the struggle for social justice–who yet insist that there is no difference between Obama and McCain, between Democrats and Republicans, between Biden and Palin: Screw you. If you are incapable of mustering pride in this moment, and if you cannot appreciate how meaningful this day is for millions of black folks who stood in lines for up to seven hours to vote, then your cynicism has become such an encumbrance as to render you all but useless to the liberation movement. Indeed, those who cannot appreciate what has just transpired are so eaten up with nihilistic rage and hopelessness that I cannot but think that they are a waste of carbon, and actively thieving oxygen that could be put to better use by others.

This election does indeed matter. No, it is not the same as victory against the forces of injustice, and yes, Obama is a heavily compromised candidate, and yes, we will have to work hard to hold him accountable. But it matters nonetheless that he, and not the bloodthirsty bomber McCain, or the Christo-fascist, Palin, managed to emerge victorious.

Those who say it doesn’t matter weren’t with me on the south side of Chicago this past week, surrounded by a collection of amazing community organizers who go out and do the hard work every day of trying to help create a way out of no way for the marginalized. All of them know that an election is but a part of the solution, a tactic really, in a larger struggle of which they are a daily part; and none of them are so naive as to think that their jobs are now to become a cakewalk because of the election of Barack Obama. But all of them were looking forward to this moment. They haven’t the luxury of believing in the quixotic campaigns of Dennis Kucinich, or waiting around for the Green Party to get its act together and become something other than a pathetic caricature, symbolized by the utterly irrelevant and increasingly narcissistic presence of Ralph Nader on the electoral scene. And while Cynthia McKinney remains a pivotal figure in the struggle, the party to which she was tethered this year shows no more ability to sustain movement activity than it was eight years ago, and most everyone working in oppressed communities in this nation knows it.

It’s like this y’all: Jesse Jackson was weeping openly on national television. This is a man who was with Dr. King when he was murdered and he was bawling like a baby. So don’t tell me this doesn’t matter.

John Lewis–who had his head cracked open, has been arrested more times, and has probably spilled far more blood for the cause of justice than all the white, dreadlocked, self-proclaimed anarchists in this country combined–couldn’t be more thrilled at what has happened. If he can see it, then frankly, who the hell are we not to?

Those who say this election means nothing, who insist that Obama, because he cozied up to Wall Street, or big business, is just another kind of evil no different than any other, are in serious risk of political self-immolation, and it is a burning they will richly deserve. That the victorious presidential candidate is actually a capitalist (contrary to the fevered imaginations of the right) is no more newsworthy than the fact that rain falls down and grass grows skyward. It is to be properly placed in the “no shit Sherlock,” file. That anyone would think it possible for someone who didn’t raise hundreds of millions of dollars to win–at this time in our history at least–only suggests that some on the left would prefer to engage politics from a place of aspirational innocence, rather than in the real world, where battles are won or lost.

So let us be clear as to what tonight meant:

It was a defeat for the right-wing echo chamber and its rhetorical stormtroopers, foremost among them Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

It was a defeat for the crazed mobs ever-present at McCain/Palin rallies, what with their venomous libels against Obama, their hate-addled brains spewing forth one after another racist and religiously chauvinistic calumny upon his head and those of his supporters.

It was a defeat for the internet rumor-pimps who insisted to all they could reach with a functioning e-mail address that Obama was not really a citizen. Or perhaps he was, but he was a Muslim, or perhaps not a Muslim, but probably a black supremacist, or maybe not that either, but surely the anti-christ, and most definitely a baby-killer.

It was a defeat for those who believed McCain and Palin would be delivered the victory by the hand of almighty God, because their theological and eschatological vacuity so regularly gets in the way of their ability to think. As such, it was a setback for the religious fascists in the far-right Christian community whose belief that God is on their side has always made them especially dangerous. Now, having lost, perhaps at least some of these will be forced to ponder what went wrong. If we’re lucky, perhaps some will suffer the kind of crisis of faith that often prefaces a complete nervous breakdown. Either way, it’s nice just to ruin their Young-Earth-Creationist-I-Have-an-Angel-on-My-Shoulder day.

It was a defeat for the demagogues who tried in so many ways to push the buttons of white racism–the old-fashioned kind, or what I call Racism 1.0–by using thinly-veiled racialized language throughout the campaign. Appeals to Joe Six-Pack, “values voters,” blue-collar voters, or hockey moms, though never explicitly racialized, were transparent to all but the most obtuse, as were terms like “terrorist” when used to describe Obama. Likewise, the attempt to race-bait the economic crisis by blaming it on loans to poor folks of color through the Community Reinvestment Act, or community activists like the folks at ACORN, failed, and this matters. No, it doesn’t mean that white America has rejected racism. Indeed, I have been quite deliberate for months about pointing out the way that racism 1.0 may be traded in only to be replaced by racism 2.0 (which allows whites to still view most folks of color negatively but carve out exceptions for those few who make us feel comfortable and who we see as “different”). And yet, that tonight was a drubbing for that 1.0 version of racism still matters.

And tonight was a victory for a few things too.

It was a victory for youth, and their social and political sensibilities. It was the young, casting away the politics of their parents and even grandparents, and turning the corner to a new day, perhaps naively, and too optimistic about the road from here, but nonetheless in a way that has historically almost always been good for the country. Much as youth were inspired by a relatively moderate John F. Kennedy (who was, on balance, far less progressive than Obama in many ways), and much as they then formed the frontline troops for so much of the social justice activism of the following fifteen years, so too can such a thing be forseen now. That Kennedy may have been quite restrained in his social justice sensibilities did not matter: the young people whose energy he helped unleash took things in their own direction and outgrew him rather quickly in their progression to the left.

Tonight was also a victory for the possibility of greater cross-racial alliance building. Although Obama failed to win most white votes, and although it is no doubt true that many of the whites who did vote for him nonetheless hold to any number of negative and racist stereotypes about the larger black and brown communities of this nation, it it still the case that black, brown and white worked together in this effort as they have rarely done before. And many whites who worked for Obama, precisely because they got to see, and hear, and feel the racist vitriol still animating far too many of our nation’s people, will now be wiser for the experience when it comes to understanding how much more work remains to be done on the racial justice front. Let us build on that newfound knowledge, and that newfound energy, and create real white allyship with community-based leaders of color as we move forward in the years to come.

But now for the other side of things.

First and foremost, please know that none of these victories will amount to much unless we do that which needs to be done so as to turn a singular event about one man, into a true social movement (which, despite what some claim, it is not yet and has never been).

And so it is back to work. Oh yes, we can savor the moment for a while, for a few days, perhaps a week. But well before inauguration day we will need to be back on the job, in the community, in the streets, where democracy is made, demanding equity and justice in places where it hasn’t been seen in decades, if ever. Because for all the talk of hope and change, there is nothing–absolutely, positively nothing–about real change that is inevitable. And hope, absent real pressure and forward motion to actualize one’s dreams, is sterile and even dangerous. Hope, absent commitment is the enemy of change, capable of translating to a giving away of one’s agency, to a relinquishing of the need to do more than just show up every few years and push a button or pull a lever.

This means hooking up now with the grass roots organizations in the communities where we live, prioritizing their struggles, joining and serving with their constituents, following leaders grounded in the community who are accountable not to Barack Obama, but the people who helped elect him. Let Obama follow, while the people lead, in other words.

For we who are white it means going back into our white spaces and challenging our brothers and sisters, parents, neighbors, colleagues and friends–and ourselves–on the racial biases that still too often permeate their and our lives, and making sure they know that the success of one man of color does not equate to the eradication of systemic racial inequity.

So are we ready for the heavy lifting? This was, after all, merely the warmup exercise, somewhat akin to stretching before a really long run. Or perhaps it was the first lap, but either way, now the baton has been handed to you, to us. We must not, cannot, afford to drop it. There is too much at stake.

The worst thing that could happen now would be for us to go back to sleep; to allow the cool poise of Obama’s prose to lull us into slumber like the cool on the underside of the pillow. For in the light of day, when fully awake, it becomes impossible not to see the incompleteness of the task so far.

So let us begin.

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