The day we all thought we’d never see became a reality this week as the nation took a major step toward racial reconciliation in entrusting the country’s national government to a black man.
President-elect Barack Obama, soon to be President Barack Obama – now, doesn’t that have a fantastic ring to it — a man who John McCain once called “that one,” is now the one who has been charged to lead the nation, over the next four years, out of a host of global and domestic quandaries. The significance of this event cannot be quantified; over the last few months we’ve seen that race is still a major barrier in America. Affirming one is not the same as affirming all.
President-elect Barack Obama has now fallen into that “special” category that Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, and Oprah Winfrey (at least until she endorsed Barack) all occupy. No longer viewed strictly in the context of race, they are instead viewed as post racial Supermen or Superwomen. They have become “transformative figures” that transcend race by virtue of their dominating excellence; their skills and public acceptance won’t let them be limited to their race (by their reluctance to speak to race) and the negative perceptions of their race.
“That one,” President Barack Obama, proved he was special in achieving what few thought was achievable, the first fulfillment of what will certainly be many expectations — some reasonable, many unreasonable — of an Obama administration. Expectations by Blacks, Whites, and others rooted in certain perceptions; the expectations will be larger than the job of president itself.
As we witnessed in this campaign cycle, it’s not that negative perceptions of black people and black communities no longer exist, it’s just many singular examples of excellence rose above what we know to be the constraints of race and racism in America.
The perception is that if one is able to do it, all should be able to. In theory, that is correct. In practice, fear of competition and systemic and institutional racism prevent it. Then there are those who feel that centuries of racial abuse and subjugation should be ignored, a perception that Blacks should “get over” slavery and segregation, despite advantages passed down to them. Blacks who succeed do so, not by overcoming equal odds, but by overcoming overwhelming odds in avoiding the traps that often prevent the fulfillment of even reasonable expectations.
And they are held to a different standard when they do rise to the top. That’s why this moment is so exceptional. While understanding this great moment in the nation’s history cannot be quantified, it most certainly can be qualified in a very real context as to what we all now expect from the nation’s latest “Superman.” His challenge is greater than the others who simply had to transcend sport or entertainment.
Barack Obama has to transcend the negative global perceptions of America and the very real socio-economic problems most Americans face. That’s pretty heavy lifting. Regardless of who won, the next President faces a host of unreasonable expectations. President Obama certainly will. Like most African Americans who succeed in the mainstream, President Obama will be under extreme scrutiny.
He will be watched by Whites to make sure he’s not being “too racial” toward Blacks and other minorities. He will be watched by African Americans to make sure he remains true to the game in addressing issues that most adversely impact black communities, namely poverty (which Barack rarely spoke to in the campaign), joblessness, economic subjugation, and educational disparities.
The expectations of Blacks and Whites are divergent and, in some instances, opposing. The whole debate around wealth redistribution has deep racial roots. President Obama can stick his toe in that water, and maybe his foot, but certainly not his leg — meaning he can help the middle class get out of their economic quandary, but working too hard to help the poor could be problematic. Capital reinvestment in Wall Street will be an expectation to revive the economy, but capital access for Main Street, or for the “Average Joe (or Jane)” that he and McCain so frequently referenced during the campaign, is an expectation that many are waiting to see if an Obama administration can fulfill.
Then there are the wars that continue, and the ones yet to come, that President Obama will be expected to exit with dignity — wars no other President had exit strategies for – certainly that is the most unreasonable expectation facing President Obama. You get the picture. The expectations won’t stop.
Let’s celebrate this phenomenal achievement in American history, but let’s also stay rooted in a reality that President-elect Barack Obama is not Superman. He’s just a man who overcame super odds to beat the systemic, institutional, and social structures that served as impediments to achieving what no African American had ever been able to achieve, being elected President of the United States. Now comes the expectation that he will be able to fulfill all of the nation’s unreasonable expectations. We know it is unreasonable to expect he will solve all the nation’s problems.
The expectations of this President will be like no other. But we’re glad to see this day, that a black man has the opportunity to, at least, try to fulfill these expectations.
God is real.
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