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|November 6-12, 2008
Back to Letters
The nation’s first black and 44th white president
by Paul Danish
The tyranny of newspaper deadlines is such that this week’s column was written before the polls close, so by the end of the second paragraph you’ll know how sound my predictive skills are.
From the perspective of Tuesday morning, I’m predicting that by the time you read this Barack Obama will be the president-elect.
This conclusion didn’t require a lot of prescience. By Tuesday morning the final polls, scads of them, showed late-deciding voters breaking Obama’s way. He was ahead in all national polls and in most battleground state polls — often with 50 percent or more of the vote. While some, but not all, state polls showed the race tightening and McCain competitive in more than a dozen close states, he would have needed to win all but one or two of them to win the election. Simultaneously winning 12 or more must-win, come-from-behind games in the final minutes is, as a practical matter, mission impossible. There are too many things that can go wrong in too many places. So I’m predicting an Obama win.
Naturally, as a McCain supporter, I would be delighted if I just had a “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment, and this piece turns into an instant collector’s item. But I’m not counting on it.
McCain’s problem was he ended up running against a force of nature — not Obama, but a global economic crisis.
For reasons stated in earlier columns (Obama wants to run in Iraq and is given to running from hard decisions), I think electing Obama is a mistake. I hope I’m wrong on that, too. But that’s beside the point. Democracy isn’t about choosing who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about having a say in choosing who makes the bed we all have to lie in. Sure I’m disappointed, but in four years there will be another election.
Besides, I have a lot in common with Barack Obama.
We share a common birthday (August 4).
We are both left-handed.
I was born in Chicago. He was born again in Chicago.
We both look Jewish. I look like your typical Ashkenazi Jew from Russia. He looks like your typical Beta Israel Jew from Ethiopia (about 120,000 of whom currently reside in Israel).
OK, that last one was a stretch.
But seriously, we are both typical white guys.
That one is not a stretch.
Yes, yes, I know that yesterday every newspaper on the planet ran a headline declaring that America just elected its first black president.
And I know that he self-identifies as black. And that nearly everyone who voted in the election, either for him or for the other candidate, perceives him as black.
But as Ronald Reagan (and John Quincy Adams before him) remarked, facts are stubborn things. And the facts are these:
Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. He is half-white and half-black. It is just as accurate to call him a white guy as it is to call him a black guy.
Unless, of course, you buy into the racist argument that even a drop of black blood in a person’s veins renders him black — which was in essence what the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 case that upheld the constitutionality of segregation. Plessy was one-eighth black.
Given the president-elect’s lineage, it would be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to say that America just elected its 44th white president as it is to say that America just elected its first black president.
But it would be much more accurate to say that America did both.
What America really did on Tuesday was vote for “black and white together.” Both in the literal and the broader metaphorical sense.
Consider the literal implications first. Whatever else the election was, it was unavoidably a national referendum on the prejudice against the mixing of the races — probably the most stubborn remaining racial prejudice in American life, and perhaps the most malignant. And the verdict of the American people was, in so many words: “That specter is out of here. If you have a problem with that, get over it. The national motto is ‘E pluribus unum,’ and henceforth we intend to walk our talk.”
That statement can be made because Obama is both black and white. It cannot be made if we have to choose whether he is the first black president or the 44th white one.
The “black and white together” narrative is both more powerful and important to the well being of the country than the “first black president” narrative in the broader metaphorical sense of black and white cooperation as well — and it is particularly crucial to the ultimate success of an Obama administration.
If Obama is defined and perceived as the first black president, then his administration’s successes and failures will be viewed through a racial lens. That might be OK (barely) for its successes, but if an Obama administration’s failures — and there will be failures — are viewed through a racial lens, that will be a national disaster and a national tragedy.
Obama has repeatedly said he will not be a perfect president. He won’t get an argument from me on that score. I genuinely hope he succeeds in doing what’s right for the country and has an administration that’s a screaming success. But if he fails, let his failure be an all-American failure, not a black one.
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