For the first time in 200 years, the president of the United States and first lady will not be white. But what does it mean? Many see Obama's victory as evidence that America has finally transcended race. He ran a "colorblind" campaign, the story goes, and thus, his multiracial heritage is seen as either incidental to how he will govern or (as the president-elect himself has suggested) it gives him special insight into our country's diverse constituency.
While I agree that heritage matters, Barack and Michelle's politics of hope—their vision of uniting the nation around the creation of a caring, compassionate culture built from the "bottom up"—is rooted not in bloodlines but in a distinctive political heritage.
President-elect Obama descends from a long line of "community organizers," from Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Bob Moses to Yuri Kochiyama, Johnnie Tillmon, and Dolores Huerta. Unlike any other U.S. president, Barack Obama comes directly out of a political tradition that believes in the power of ordinary people to make decisions, to participate fully in the democratic process, and to formulate policies and agendas that grow immediately out of their daily struggles. He learned his politics from the residents he had organized in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens housing project in the mid-1980s, those beautiful older black women who taught our 44th president about the capacity of poor people to make demands and fight back.
President-elect Obama is also a political descendant of the first generation of black lawmakers elected during Reconstruction, when ex-slaves won the right to vote, held offices in the state houses and assemblies and Congress, and helped draft the most democratic state constitutions in the history of the country—providing free universal public education, funds for roads and infrastructure, and services for poor and physically disabled. These men, many of whom bore the marks of the slaver's lash, preferred expanding democracy to punishing whites, and some even supported woman suffrage. A quarter century later, African Americans were effectively disfranchised through force and intimidation. President-elect Obama can lay claim to the generations that followed, those like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, whose predominantly poor black constituency opened its doors to all Mississippians during the early 1960s when the traditional state party fought violently to keep blacks voteless. And he is heir to the historic presidential bids of Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, not because they share the same racial heritage but because their respective campaigns mobilized millions alienated from politics bent on moving the country in a new direction. These campaigns expanded the electorate and inspired a generation of community organizers concerned with women's rights, poverty, environmental justice, and growing racial disparities in income, housing, and education—community organizers like Barack Obama.
Like the Obama campaign, all of these movements addressed the entire nation, not just black America. The difference is Obama won, and he won by running a campaign that claimed to "transcend" race, but in truth, tried to erase it. He had no choice, not because white Americans are hopelessly racist, but because our entire nation is woefully ignorant when it comes to matters of race and racism. Thanks to a poll-crazed media, the issue of "race" has been reduced to what ordinary people think about race—usually in the most simplistic biracial terms. To our peril, we ignore hard questions about why racial disparities persist and are widening, why hate crimes against Latinos have risen sharply, why 1 in 9 black men ages 20 to 34 are behind bars, or how race has shaped immigration policy, the subprime lending crisis, or even the conduct of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While scholars study these questions, they have not become part of the general campaign discussion because most Americans see race as a "black" problem rather than a national issue shaping most aspects of public life. I suspect President-elect Obama knows this, but he also knows that his race is a liability when it comes to addressing racial disparities. It is sadly ironic that the president perhaps most sensitive to racial inequality would have to ignore race, lest he be accused of partisanship. And yet, if Obama is to be a truly great president, he cannot afford to ignore race.