For months, as mainstream pundits and prognosticators argued about the growing prospect that Barack Obama would become the nation's first African-American president, I, along with many of my baby boomer African-American friends listened in semidisbelief. For as long as we could remember, whenever talk at the kitchen table or barber shop would veer into speculation about a possible black president, the conversation would inevitably abruptly end, punctuated by four final words—"not in our lifetime."
Even after defeating the formidable Clinton machine and outpacing every opponent as smoothly as Usain Bolt on the track in Beijing, there was the edgy feeling that somehow something would trip up the brother and disqualify him from taking home the gold. It was probably no accident that many of us read our first book by the black conservative, Shelby Steele, during this campaign. It was titled, A Bound Man—Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win. Steele seemed to validate our fears.
Many of my white friends and even my own daughter were more hopeful. They pointed to the fact that though the numbers are still small, African-Americans have made significant breakthroughs in politics and society over the past 50 years. We've had a handful of black governors and senators, and there are now 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. I couldn't deny that times had indeed changed since my mother and father struggled to raise four kids in the projects of Baltimore when the only hope came from the church and the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King. But my disbelief had deep roots.
Like most African-American baby boomers, I harbor memories of the indignities my parents had to endure over a lifetime, as well as the blunt force of overt racism I have experienced myself—from racial slurs to job discrimination to workplace apartheid. But the disbelief I have held onto is not the result of low self-esteem. Just the opposite. Having grown up straddling two worlds—one black, one white—and thinking I had to be twice as good to get the same opportunities as my white counterparts, I have always known that I could compete and win with anyone if given half a chance.
My disbelief around this election sprang from a nagging question: Even though there was real racial reconciliation occurring in this country, would there ever be enough whites willing to vote for a black president, regardless of his or her obvious talents? That feeling of doubt and disbelief has been reinforced over the years by the glaring racial disparities that persist in almost every aspect of American society. While many of my generation have had some success, the specter of racial division has hung over our professions and work places like an ominous cloud. And if we really wanted to know what the majority of Americans thought about us, we only had to look at the bulging black prison population, the double rate of black unemployment, and the portrayal of African-Americans on TV shows like Flavor Flav's Flavor of Love. That's why it struck such a chord when Bill Clinton used the term "fairy tale" when discussing Obama's candidacy. Of course it was a fairy tale. Who were we kidding?
But a profound shift in consciousness has occurred since my days as a student at Morgan State University in the mid-'60s. It turns out I was wrong. A growing number of whites are now willing to put character over color when it comes to choosing leaders for the most important jobs in America. The successes of people like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Ron Brown, Vernon Jordan, Dick Parsons, and Ken Chenault would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Even so, my disbelief persisted. After all, "President of the United States—Leader of the Free World" is a title that, for 220 years, has been reserved for white men only. Not one woman. Not one person of color. Until now.
Barack Obama has been hired to lead the most powerful country in the world. By earning the job, he has suspended my disbelief and the disbelief of millions of African-Americans who, even while casting our ballots for him, never thought we would ever see this day. His success also says to children of every color throughout this country, you, too, can one day grow up to be president of the United States.