Barack Obama is a black man. Yes, he is. But how quickly we’ve gotten to the place where it’s just not mattering very much. When you saw the president-elect up on the platform introducing his team of economic advisers, did you find yourself thinking, “Hmm, he’s a tad darker than the guy on his left”? Nope, I don’t think you did.
Oh, there’ll be a bit more discussion of race and culture, especially at inauguration time. But don’t expect it to go much beyond the sidebars that accompanied LBJ, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton when each of them brought his own culture and personality to the Oval Office. We just don’t have time right now for a lot of that kind of reflection.
If anything, it’ll be a bit sad, perhaps, that the momentous occasion of an African-American family moving into the White House will be so quickly lost in the urgency of the tasks at hand.
As Obama himself said when his eventual running mate came out with what could be construed as a racial gaffe, we really don’t have the luxury of getting caught up with such things. While no one wants to denigrate the positive, enriching aspects of cultural differences, maybe we’ll finally let skin color be what it always should have been — a cosmetic difference.
Is it naive to hope that Barack Obama’s race will soon matter about as much as Condoleezza Rice’s, Alberto Gonzales’s or Joe Biden’s? Perhaps the comparison’s unfair. After all, the president is responsible for a much broader range of public policy than the secretary of State, attorney general or vice president. Plus, an able president tries both to reflect and direct the collective will of the people, or of the majority of the people, at any rate. The job is a whole lot bigger.
In other words, the role of president is so very complex, so significant to how we view ourselves and how others view us, so open to constant scrutiny and incessant analysis that we, the people, may be unable to leave alone the question of our new president’s race. Certainly no one ever forgot that Ronald Reagan was first a Hollywood actor or that Ike Eisenhower was a World War II general. So maybe we shouldn’t expect ourselves to become color-blind overnight. Maybe Obama’s skin color will, after all, remain a distinctive characteristic, just as did Harry Truman’s previous job as a haberdasher or Jimmy Carter’s time as a Baptist Sunday school teacher.
What I’m guessing is that we won’t forget Obama’s racial background any more than people failed to notice that Abe Lincoln was almost always the tallest man in the room. But, instead of being the defining characteristic by which we view him, my hope is that Obama’s race will soon become just one aspect among many. Maybe a year or so from now the media and the rest of us will be more fixated on Obama’s confounded fastidiousness than the degree of melanin present in his epidermis. To be truthful, it looks as if we’ve already reached that point. (By the way, did you know — thanks again, Wikipedia — that melanin serves as a pigmentation agent not just in humans, but also in animals, plants and even protozoa? So much for the innate significance of physical traits attributable to race.)
How is it that we ornery sinners have come so far so quickly? Well, you have to credit the many heroes, sung and unsung, who led the civil rights movement through the decades. Also, we must acknowledge the courage that it took to integrate schools across the country or to pass and enforce the Voting Rights Act. There were brave little black kids who went, for the first time, to sixth grade at the “white” school, and brave little white kids who played with them. There was the black teacher of honors biology who moved from the shabby black high school to the formerly white one and took the lectern in front of a class of 30 preppy white kids. There’s also the progress made in sports, both varsity and professional, as well as in a few churches, notably the urban, nondenominational ones that have welcomed worshippers from a variety of cultures, socioeconomic groups and skin colors.
And then there’s the role of television.
Television deservedly gets a lot of blame for a lot of things, but in this case, I think the boob tube has served a good purpose.
I remember visiting the U.S. in 2002, turning on the TV set and quickly getting hooked on a show about brave men and women fighting terrorists on U.S. soil. I’m talking, of course, about “24.” Jack Bauer was cool enough, sure, but what was really intriguing about the early seasons of “24” was David Palmer. David Palmer was the president. And he was black.
Yes, David Palmer was black, but rarely was a word said about his skin tone. In fact, he wasn’t as much a black president as he was a president who happened to be black.
It occurred to me then that the reputedly reactionary Fox television network had blazed some new territory. True to form, Fox had produced a series that showed just how far one man, Jack Bauer, would go in his devotion to his country. Surely in doing so they were catering to the vast right wing that had only recently ceased conspiring against Bill and Hillary and was then focusing its ire, justifiably, on Osama bin Laden and friends.
However, as the plot of Fox Entertainment’s “24” consciously echoed the lead stories of Fox News Channel, a revolutionary idea slipped in that was then nowhere in the public’s consciousness: a president who was not only black, but whose race didn’t matter a whit.
You have to wonder if the good old Fox media conglomerate, not exactly a kindred spirit to MoveOn.org, in fact did much more than the American left to get Barack Obama into office. After all, how many moderates and conservatives have actually been swayed by the appeals of Michael Moore or Barbra Streisand?
I put myself on MoveOn.org’s e-mail list last year and, let me tell you, in terms of bandwidth consumption, they come in behind only the purveyors of bogus diplomas and fake Viagra. In spite of the volume of correspondence, seldom did what they had to say do anything to convince me to vote their way.
On the other hand, noble, earnest President David Palmer — villainous wife notwithstanding — really did have a long-term effect on my thinking, I believe. Oh, I don’t think I ever had a doubt, at least not since I was a young boy in the pre-integration South, that a person with darker skin could serve perfectly well in the Oval Office. But my residual good-old-boy mindset may have needed a little nudge to see that something I had never imagined happening, at least not in the near future, could actually happen, and that the world would go on.
That’s one reason I believe some middle-aged white guys like me found ourselves taking Barack Obama seriously, and maybe why an awful lot of us even voted for him.
Mr. President-elect, the list of those who've paved the way for you is longer than your new limo (actually, it's a 2005 model, though it should be a step up from your 2000 Dodge Neon that you sold a few years back). But perhaps you can thank the fans of “24,” a least a little bit, for your new job. At the same time, just be grateful that, in bringing up good memories of President David Palmer, we were more than happy to forget about Mrs. Palmer!