Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Elect Obama

Whatever conservative disappointment with the result of the election, this is still a historic and exciting moment in our history. As I often tell my students, they're living through the history that their children will study in their history books. And we can well imagine that this chapter will be titled something like the "Age of Obama."

I've been preparing to discuss the Lincoln-Douglas debates with my class this week by reading the absolutely marvelous new book by Allen Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America. This year is the 150 year anniversary of those historic debates. And it struck me how far we've come. Those debates were one year after the notorious Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court stated that no black man was a citizen of the United States. Even Abraham Lincoln who argued that all blacks were entitled to the natural rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, also stated in those debates that they were not entitled to civil rights such as voting.

C-Span is preparing for a special in December about the history of the White House and they had an hour-long preview a couple of weeks ago. I was watching that and thinking about the Obama family living there. It's been a long time since we've had young children in the White House. But just think of all the slaveowners who lived in that house. And now we will have an African American there.

Of course, this is a symbolic victory. Obama's victory will not with one fell swoop change the lives of black Americans. The black community will still face the problems that they had yesterday. Electing Obama will not decrease teen pregnancy or the crime rate among black men. Obama will have the opportunity to use the bully pulpit to address those problems and speak out about the need for increased responsibility in the black community. He has already done that somewhat, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear more of that for him. And all those blacks celebrating his victory will have to realize that having a black man in the White House will not suddenly change their lives any more than having black mayors in all the major cities has not improved their lives.

Look at the crowds of white people who went to Obama rallies and the faces of young white kids celebrating his victory. And then just think about how it was in our lifetimes when blacks could not vote throughout the South. And now the capital of the Confederacy went for an African American man for the presidency. Even for conservatives, this is an amazing moment to marvel at and savor. We have come so far since when I was a child and that is a good thing.