A Lexis-Nexis search for the phrase “post 9/11 world” in all English-language print and broadcast transcript outlets returns 999 hits since September 11, 2001. That such a context-loaded phrase has become shorthand for the change in our lifestyle is obvious from within, but what does it mean from a perspective outside of that experience? We can point to various watershed moments in history after which the paradigm for normality shifts and “everything changes.” I believe that today, November 4, 2008 is another one of those days.
As a short preface, I should explain my position vis-à-vis the presumptive president-elect. I campaigned for Dennis Kucinich during this election as I did during the 2004 election. I have been vocal about my feelings that Barack Obama might make a good president someday, but not yet. I have worried that in order to get to where he is in as short a time as he did, that he must be in someone’s pocket. I’ve echoed concerns that an Obama presidency will certainly be more polished, but isn’t likely to be more transparent. I have spoken openly that its just as wrong to vote for Obama because he’s black as it is to vote against him because he’s black.
I did cast a ballot for Barack Obama, not because I like his policies or think that he’ll make necessary changes; in fact, I think that he’s not likely to be radical enough in changing our foreign policy writ large with the so-called “War on Terror” being a prime example of our folly nor will he go far enough in nationalizing health care to truly make such a system workable and affordable. Essentially, I voted for change. For the hope that if enough people cast ballots the way I did, that states like Texas can’t be presumed to vote one way or the other.
The Obama campaign has promised things like “change,” and “hope.” While what Obama means by these words isn’t exactly clear (especially since his stance on many issues is centrist, maintaining status quo). When I step back and look at this election as a referendum on race, however, these words do make a kind of sense. I think that they’ve resonated with black Americans as well, since the greatest fears and hope we have seem to revolve around Obama as a “first and only.” Though I would be quick to criticize someone whose only rationale in voting for Obama was race, I certainly see Obama’s racial identity as a value-added component of his presidency.
Given the recent history of presidential elections in this country, there is reasonable concern that a post 11/4 world will reinforce the state of racial affairs in the United States. Even if Dick Cheney hasn’t rigged all the voting machines and purges of registered voters fail to effectively disenfranchise black voters, there is significant buzz among white Americans that “we’re not ready for a black president.” This statement really has very little to do with any person in particular or black people in general, but about the mindset of the people who think and say such a thing. They mean, I think, to say that there’s no way that a black person is capable of holding and executing such a powerful and prestigious position as President of the United States of America. Such a thought causes so much cognitive dissonance in these folks that they are literally scared for their way of life. For good measure, the Republican machine has cultivated rumors about Obama’s citizenship, his religion, his attitude toward gays, and his ability to serve in the CIA or FBI as fodder for those Republican voters who are too sophisticated to be swayed by a racial argument. A post 11/4 world might very well mean a retrenchment for openly racist Americans who would view Obama’s defeat as a victory for the Lost Cause.
A post 11/4 world might also bring that ray of Hope that Obama preached to us. Yes, an Obama victory means that he will no doubt be considered a race representative, and that his gaffes will be attributed to some supposed defect of the black condition instead of his own foibles. But the opposite is also true. The inescapable presence of a black man in position as what has often been referred to as the “most powerful man in the world,” suggests that white folks will have to do daily battle with the little racist thoughts that are so pervasive as to constitute a sort of “background radiation.” For our part, seeing one of our own in the Oval Office gives a reason to hope against experience that sometimes the system will work for us. We can only get over so many times before it becomes the rule instead of the exception. Certainly the man down the street, the lady at your grocery checkstand, and the kid in your daughter’s classroom aren’t going to stop holding racist beliefs or making racist comments or viewing every black person differently in 11/5, but those beliefs and comments will be on notice.
Finally, what this contest is about is Change. Whether the post 11/4 world brings a resplendent victory for Obama or chilling defeat for racial progress, we will be forced to enter into a conversation about who we are as a nation (including who “we” encompasses), what we believe, and where we are going. The necessary prerequisite to that conversation is a common vocabulary, and that vocabulary requires a common experience. Up till now, it has been the peculiar prerogative of white privilege to deny the subjective experience of discrimination. Life after this election means that we have to examine why racism has been so persistent in the way that Americans think and act.