One of the most remarkable things about President Obama’s race is the difference it made both before and after the election. It made some difference before the election. It has made little difference since.
I take this as a sign. A mere 143 years from the abolition of slavery, an African American has received the nation’s electoral endorsement for our highest public office. When I say “a mere 143 years,” I mean exactly that: the blink of an eye in the American political experience. Those living today have personal histories that tightly intersect with earlier generations. I have known black Americans whose grandparents were enslaved. A girl I dated in college had a great-grandmother who had been owned by her great-grandfather.
In 1964, at the age of seventeen, I traveled through the South on a Boy Scout jaunt to Florida. Two of our company were black, and the Public Accommodations Act was not yet law. Once we left Missouri, our friends were unable to enter restaurants along the way or use the same toilets and water fountains as the rest of us. In an Atlanta bus station I saw signs declaring “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” for the first time outside of photographs. I remember feeling angry, humiliated, and ashamed. These are events that shaped my life while I was grow up.
What happened, then, with the election of Obama is nothing short of amazing. Though Booker T. Washington back in the 1890s predicted a black man as president, I never thought I’d live long enough to see it. I cannot look at Obama’s inauguration as anything but one of America’s best moments, and certainly it generated a lot of national self-congratulatory commentary about Americans rising above racial interests in the run-up to Inauguration Day.
But since then, the most remarkable thing about a black president is how unremarkable it has become. As of March 5, the stock market has experienced a 20 percent loss in value since Obama took office. That’s not a racial thing. That’s an economic and political thing. So far, market reactions reveal that his presidency has failed to stabilize our economic mess.
But even this is good. It means a white guy like me can judge him not for the color of his skin but for the content of his policies. That’s the kind of America we all want.