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Obama is a glorious shock to a system delineated by race

Race haunts America. Many of us try to ignore the ghost, deny that he's real or claim that he's been finally laid to rest. But we know better. We hear the ghost — he's outraged, unrelenting — telling of slavery and hatred, America's Original Sin.

Barack Obama is supposed to be "postracial," with his white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father. Unlike John Lewis or Jesse Jackson or Condoleezza Rice, he didn't come of age in the midst of bombs, cracker vigilantism and state-sponsored terror in response to the civil rights movement. He's supposed to be free of slavery's psychic scars.

Obama may be postracial, even posthistorical, but the country is not. A company in Utah marketed the "Sock Obama," a toy chimp in a suit. Some guys in Texas were selling buttons that read "If Obama's President, is it still the White House?" Fox "News" called Michelle Obama, a woman educated at Princeton and Harvard, "Obama's Baby Mama." Even people who think of themselves as "progressive" work overtime not to stir up those stereotypes still hanging like unquiet spirits in the national air.

I'm not post­racial either, nor color-blind. I remember, just, the last days of the water fountain signs: "white only," "colored." Even after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were passed and the schools had grudgingly started to desegregate, my people's version of apartheid — what we called, with a straight face, "the Southern way of life" — remained. There was no law that allowed the lady who cleaned our house to sit at the kitchen table but never the dining room table. There was no statute that decreed black people should live on the south side of town and white people on the north. It was, we told ourselves, simply the custom.

I would have been happy with Hillary Clinton as the Democrats' candidate for president, despite her hissy fit-pitching husband. A woman vying for the highest office in the land — and probably winning it — would be the fulfillment of a dream long deferred.

But Obama's nomination feels to me like an even greater turn of the wheel, a potential transfiguration. Maybe it's because some of my ancestors were slaveholders. Others owned no plantations but fought for those who did. Still other kinfolk believed as surely in "white supremacy" as they believed in Jesus. Maybe more so.

This isn't just white guilt (though that never hurt anybody). It is, to steal from the candidate himself, the audacity of hope. When Obama began his bid for the presidency, there was talk that he wasn't "black enough." He responded that he was black enough that taxis wouldn't stop for him in the streets of Manhattan. Obama is a challenge to a 400-year-old American order: A young black man in charge? What could be more provocative, more transformative, in a country that imprisons young black men for even minor offenses, where white people admit they're scared seeing a black man walking down the street?

Obama may be able to transcend race — someday. Right now the fact he's running is a salutary shock to the system. Come 2009, we may start getting used to a black man signing bills into law, a black man as commander in chief, a black man in the White House. That's not just new, that's not just "historic," it's the nation evolving before our very eyes.

For the first time in eight years or so, I'm proud of my country.

Obama is a glorious shock to a system delineated by race 06/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 9:36pm]
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