Wednesday, November 5, 2008
History has two faces
It's not as though I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime; still, even hours after the event occurred, it registers with a faint shock that this country has elected an African-American president. I grew up in the South, in the 60's; I can remember "Whites Only" and "Colored" water fountains, and my neighbors off-handedly using the "n-word;" yet I also remember when my local school began to be integrated, it happened with less fuss, ironically, than would occur in liberal Boston a few years later. Indeed, when I came to this city in the late 70's, it actually seemed more racist to me - or at least certainly more segregated - than my hometown; black cab drivers wouldn't take you to Charlestown or Southie in those days, and no white person went to Roxbury alone. Today, many of those color lines have eased (although I imagine most of my white friends could count on one hand the times they've been to Dudley Square), and opposition to racism has become our de facto cultural stance; indeed, it's hard to fight the feeling that so many young people are aggressively anti-racist precisely because it's so easy, so risk-free. Obama's race for them was therefore an irresistible draw; it represented political virtue with no penalty.
But progress often occurs through such ironic modes; the fact that many of Obama's young supporters would have contentedly gone along with racist tropes thirty or forty years ago doesn't really change the fact that once again, America has somehow transcended itself. What's more sadly ironic about this victory, at least to me, is that even while America has been rejecting its racism, it has been confirming its homophobia. In California, Proposition 8, which will enshrine discrimination against gays and lesbians in the state constitution, is expected to pass (validating, perhaps, the wisdom of the Massachusetts legislature, which killed a similar embarrassment before it got to the ballot). It seems that every time this country takes a step forward, we also take a step back. But what makes this defeat even more bitter is the fact that of all ethnic groups, African-Americans have supported Proposition 8 by the widest margin, and their turnout was far larger this year due to Obama - in a word, in his rise he unwittingly brought about discrimination against gay people. Strange as it may seem, many of those who were once the victims of bigotry have turned out to be bigots themselves. And they even use the Bible as their justification, precisely as the Southern Baptists used it in the civil rights struggle when they pointed out that the Bible justified slavery (which it does). To be blunt, if you believe in the Bible "literally," then you believe in slavery; I wish more fundamentalists and evangelicals, both black and white, were routinely reminded of that fact.
Still, one of the most salient points about Barack Obama is that he may prefigure a sea-change in African-American prejudice as well as white prejudice. He seems slightly distant to gays and lesbians, I think, but also accepting of them - he even mentioned gays in his acceptance speech last night (another tiny inch forward). And of course he opposed Proposition 8. Could he be the catalyst for a reversal in black attitudes? There was certainly a sense of historic re-alignment in Chicago last night - Chicago, the city whose riots famously doomed the 1968 Democratic convention, and probably the chances of the Democratic nominee that year, and perhaps, liberalism in general. (The riots even occurred largely in Grant Park, the setting for last night's rally.) Could history, hiding a smile, have returned to this fraught site with the purpose of launching a new liberal trajectory? Can Barack Obama possibly effect a genuine transformation of this country? His most ardent supporters always seemed to grant him that kind of messianic quality; perhaps it's time for gay rights supporters to begin to hope for the same thing.