A Color-Blind America? Don’t Fall For The Okey-Doke

Tears. Laughter. Jubilation.

Shouts of “Yes We Can!” and “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!”

I was one of the quarter of a million people gathered in Grant Park on election night; these reactions, these shouts, and the music—everything from Stevie Wonder to Eric Clapton—continue to play out in my mind.

There are several moments that stand out in what continues to be a haze: The news outlet of choice for “the event” was CNN, and there were a dozen or so jumbotrons spread throughout the park. I’ll never forget hearing analyst David Gergen’s gaffe “Obama simply did not win the white vote…” (or something to that effect). I remember looking around in astonishment and raised the rhetorical question to myself “where is David Gergen talking about, because almost everyone around me is white?!”

CNN was doing real-time roll calls of the states’ voting patterns. Whenever Obama was projected to have won a state, cheers rang out. When a state was called for McCain there were boos and silent pauses. I had not ever thought it would be possible to sense that many people being nervously silent, but they were.

And then there was the energy, the unmistakable nervous energy of hundreds of thousands of people gathering for one common purpose. We all knew that we were on the brink of something, but we did not know exactly what. Win or lose, there was so much love, peace, and general enthusiasm—like what I’d heard about Woodstock (less the partial nudity and drugs). This was by all accounts—both classic and contemporary—a religious experience. As an ethnographer, however, I continued to ask myself “is everyone a convert?”

40 Acres and Crunk in the White House

I will never, ever forget looking up at a huge screen, noticing the dramatic, drumroll sounds that preceded the announcement of breaking news, and hearing Wolf Blitzer say, “And CNN can now project that Barack Obama, 47 years old, will become the President-Elect of the United States…” I read on the screen “Barack Obama Elected President” and felt the pandemonium of celebration around me. The palpable energy that had until that moment felt like an undercurrent became a gushing waterfall, some of which seemed to be making its way through to my phone. I received a swarm of text messages and emails from different people I know across the country, arriving almost simultaneously:

This is the best moment in my lifetime, politically.

Shout out to the ancestors who r rejoicing with us 2night!

Oh yeah. President Obama! A new day is on the way!

Yes GOD can! Yes we can!

They didn’t want to give us 40 acres and a mule so dammit we will take 50 states and a white house! OBAMA 08! We NEED to PRAY for this president the most!!!

And a most provocative email from a close friend:

I hope that Mr. Obama can bring the change to the nation that not only people can believe in, but that is real and actual (and doesn’t have to do with raising anyone’s taxes). I hope that he and the Democratic Congress can solve the problems in the economy, end the armed incursion into the sovereign nation of Iraq, catch Osama bin Laden, turn water into wine, fix the health care system, give negroes their 40 acres and a mule, end our dependence on foreign oil, fix the public school system, bring jobs back from overseas, resolve the housing crisis, restore America’s reputation around the world, increase the minimum wage, get crunk in the White House, ensure equality among all people, end the pipeline to prison for little negro boys, pack the Supreme Court with some liberal judges that will uphold a woman’s right to an abortion, walk on water, and all of the other amazing things that have been promised during the campaign and those things not promised, but people hoped for. But if some (or none) of these things happen, and the country is not going in the right direction in 2 years—when the next presidential campaign will start—I hope that the American people will use their right to vote to make changes in the White House and on Capitol Hill because people get the president (and congressmen) they deserve.

40 acres and a mule? Shout outs from ancestors? A new day is on the way? Walking on water? Getting crunk in the White House? Does anybody else recognize something noticeably disconnected about these electronic messages?

I certainly did. In the first place there was pride, hope, excitement, and perceptions of divine intervention. It is no secret that Americans, and especially African Americans, have consistently described Obama’s candidacy as not only a significant historical moment, but also a long-hoped-for change.

But these reactions also communicated other sentiments—anxiety, skepticism, and cynicism. These feelings are not exclusively held by disappointed McCain/Palin supporters, but also by African Americans who have heard and continue to hear people like Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. say, “Obama did not run as a black candidate, he ran as an American who happens to be black” (which I heard him proudly state on a local Chicago television station the morning of November 5).

I am willing to acknowledge that part of the brilliance behind President-Elect Obama’s campaign was his lack of emphasis on race. In the nearly two years of campaigning for the office of president, Obama really did not talk about race until he had to—which ironically was connected to his religious affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Although he openly talked about his mixed racial heritage and how that shaped his religious, political, and cultural perspectives, he took race out of the spotlight (though we all know that race played a tremendous part of his campaign, right?).

But wait a minute. There is something particularly dangerous to me about the way his campaign was run, and I need to ask: What are the larger implications of this idea that somehow, in America, the color of one’s skin does not matter?

Spinning the Dream

On the one hand, the more optimistic hand, it means that perhaps in some way, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been actualized.

On the other, it means it is quite likely that people will begin to think that in the larger scheme of things, race doesn’t matter and racism doesn’t exist. That we no longer have to worry about checking boxes to indicate our racial identities on job, grant, or scholarship applications. That there is no longer a need for the philanthropic agencies who make support for ethnic and racial minorities one of their primary goals. In universities, where this could potentially signal the end of the effort toward diversity, people might think that we don’t need area studies such as African American studies, Native American Studies, Asian American studies and the like—all because race/ism is no longer an issue. Within the study of religion, this could mean that examination of African American and African diasporic traditions, which are heavily (though not exclusively) rooted in the legacy of slavery, might be seen as a glimpse into the archaic past—a past that has little to no contemporary relevance.

Am I exaggerating these possibilities? I think not.

On Thursday, November 6, two days after the election, I led a discussion on “Religion and Race” in my Introduction to Religion course. (It was actually quite serendipitous how that component of the course occurred when it did–I wish I could take credit for that. I’ve been teaching the same segment at the same time for the past three semesters). I informed them of the numerous ways that religion has been used in this country as a means of justifying racial oppression—most notably slavery. After sharing this information I opened the floor to students so that they could offer their perspectives about the relationship between religion and race, but more so, how religious ideology has been used to justify racial hierarchies. Several of my students noted that after the election results, their classmates had made comments such as “they [African Americans] can never complain anymore because they got one of theirs in the White House.”

Despite the numerous problems with this perspective (which cannot fully be dealt with here), I use this statement to make the same point here that I made to my students–don’t fall for the “okey doke,” for the con. In another words, don’t allow the spin factor to make you to think that race/ism is no longer an issue in our culture. While the election of Barack Obama is a significant historical event, never forget that there have always been exceptional minorities who paved the way for this moment. Always be aware of the double-consciousness that minorities in this culture embody. Never think that in some distorted way, the election of a self-identified African American for the office of president of the United States should or can assuage white guilt about the negative treatment of blacks in this country. And never forget that this country’s history—and yes, its religious history—is painfully marked by the use of religion to marginalize, oppress, discriminate against, and racialize people of color.

Seeing Color

That people can begin to see past color also translates into the idea that people don’t see color, and as Ralph Ellison let us all know in Invisible Man, that is not okay. As a black woman who was followed by campus police the day I attempted to move into my office, or who a few months ago had to file a complaint because a resident in my building had selected “I Hate N****rs” as the name of their wireless network, I can tell you for a fact that it all still does matter. It is the anxiety, skepticism, and cynicism that I, as an African American scholar, most readily identify with, and here’s why. Barack Obama’s campaign and the discourse surrounding it have successfully given my students (who by and large already have a poor sense of historical memory) yet another reason to think and to argue that racism is no longer an issue. This, I fear, is the greatest “okey doke” that Obama’s campaign has inspired–the myth of the end of race/ism–perceived or otherwise.

As I think back on my experience in Grant Park last week, however, I have to suspend that anxiety, skepticism, and cynicism, even if for a moment. I was not among the members in that crowd who cried, jumped up and down, or hugged complete strangers on that November evening. But I was glad to be there when President-Elect Barack Hussein Obama came out to us, introduced the First Family, and delivered in his uncanny ministerial tone the sobering, yet timely, speech that so many of us will remember.

Department colleagues, family members, and friends continue to prod me about my experience with stunning disbelief—“You were there? You were actually there!” Yes, I was.

And while it was as a significant moment in our country’s history, it wasn’t the only one. There have been numerous watershed moments that I wish our country would not only remember, but talk about. That doesn’t mean that we have to forget, or even to constantly remind people of this past, but at the very least it means we have to talk.

I am not sure what will become of America’s future or Obama’s presidency, but I know that it will be difficult and will likely require that we envision things that appear to be so deeply embedded in our country’s history in a new way. How this translates to discussion of race and racism has yet to be determined. But if Barack Obama’s campaign and candidacy have revealed nothing else, they’ve shown us some of the challenges of not seeing and not talking openly about race, and the ways that religion intersects with and influences these discourses.

(Photo: “November 4, 2008, Chicago, IL” Courtesy of the author. All Rights Reserved. )