It’s easy for many of us to stand apart the better to fleer and scorn at the solemnities of Democratic Party as Barack Obama accepts the burden of their standard in the presidential race. It’s too easy for us to get caught up in the rough and tumble of the tactical moment. But we should stop for a moment and consider: History is being made. American history. Our history.
One of our two major political parties has managed – against considerable odds – to select an African-American to plausibly run as a candidate for our nation’s highest political office. He won in the face of an internal struggle as brutal and winnowing as anything the world has seen since the Borgias contested for the crown of Italy. He won against an aggressive contestant for the nomination that had name recognition, a popular brand, the backing of a generation of partisans and an air of impervious inevitability. He won against a very real legacy of racism to which some among his party constituents were by no means immune.
There will be time for us later to once again weigh whether the candidate’s qualifications and experience commend him to the office. Time to talk about soaring rhetoric absent detail. Time to question antecedents. Time to ask what vaguely expressed policy preferences might actually cost in elected execution, both in material and moral terms.
But honestly, for patriotic Americans who believe – truly believe – in the magic of our ideals, this is not that time. This is a time to celebrate.
In my own lifetime, the Supreme Court struck down a statute of my own, my native land, that debarred a man of color from marrying a white woman. In my own lifetime, police officers set dogs and fire hoses against American citizens protesting for their God-given rights, as enshrined in our sacred Constitution. In my own lifetime, US Navy ships failed to sail on schedule because of racial tensions, neighborhoods burned, police batons whistled through the air and thumped against innocent flesh. On the other side, race pimps and panderers colluded in off-putting and ultimately doomed attempts to guilt the dominant culture into painful concessions that elided our deeply ingrained cultural expectations of personal effort and responsibility.
Barack Obama tried to run as a post-racial candidate. To our discredit and to his, not all of us were prepared to let him, not everything in his past permitted it. But in winning his party’s nomination despite those barriers he laid to rest many ugly presumptions about who could and could not successfully contest in the struggle for the leadership of a great nation. For the leadership, indeed, of the free world. In doing so he laid to rest the angry racialist rhetoric of his predecessors. We make wry comments about “hope” and “change”. But perhaps we have indeed come to a moment in which an African-American man’s skin color is not a disadvantage so much as it is an opportunity. A chance to publicly declare that what we once were, and ought to regret, we are no longer.
Win or lose in the end, as he takes the stage tonight he he stands in the shadow of a great and courageous man. A man who spoke to the nation about his dream forty-five years ago today – in my lifetime. A man who dared to say: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Obama’s candidacy is necessary if not sufficient milestone on the path to that dream. We are not there yet.
We still judge – for better or worse – more by the color of a man’s skin than by the content of his character. Perhaps Ms. Ferraro was right, and a man whose race would have prevented him from contesting the presidential election ten or twenty years ago now stands on the brink of success because of it. The pendulum swings from the impossible in one moment to the seemingly inevitable in the next. Eventually it will come to rest at reason because at the end of the day this our national talent, our genius. But in the meantime, we are one step closer to Martin Luther King’s noble vision of a colorblind society.
Later we can sink back into the scrum. We can wish that someone more perfect had come along to bear the burden of King’s hopes and prayers. But in this moment – even as we smile at their self-indulgent excesses – we should pause and congratulate the Democratic Party, and the great country that gave its members birth.
This is a great day.