Step back for a moment and consider what happened Tuesday.
The people of the United States elected a black man named Barack Obama as their president.
Given the corrosive role of race in the American saga, this is a seminal event. Not just for this country, but for any country.
There does not appear to be a single instance in “the entire history of the human condition,” to use the words of writer Shelby Steele, in which a major nation-state has chosen to put a member of such a historically downtrodden minority in charge.
“It says to everyone in America, ‘You can be president someday,’ ” said historian Douglas Brinkley, of Rice University. “It plays into our national mythology in a very real and profound way. … This isn’t affirmative action. This is winning.”
What gives special power to this milestone – which was barely discussed during the campaign – is that it arrived years, perhaps decades, earlier than most people thought it would.
“This is beyond the wildest dreams of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Ron Walters, who helped run Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. “After those campaigns, I thought you’d never have a black president in my lifetime.”
In the annals of black history, it ranks with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Supreme Court’s 1954 school-desegregation decision, historians say. As an election outcome, it’s up there with Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1932.
“Whether or not this turns out to be a realigning election or ushers in a new progressive era, I think it’s going to be larger than we imagine in its impact,” said author Doris Kearns Goodwin. “So much of the past had to have been laid aside to allow this to happen.”
And much of the rest of the international community will applaud.
“There is utter amazement around the world that this is happening,” said William H. Gray III, a former congressman from Philadelphia who recorded some black political firsts during his own career.
“In other countries, people see it as an affirmation of the American dream, that this is a place of wonderful opportunity for everyone,” Gray said. “What may seem simple to us as Americans is terribly profound to them.”
However, not everything in the realm of race relations changes with Obama’s victory.
It’s too early to gauge the impact. Some black leaders worry that whites will think that full racial equality has arrived – even though, they say, there’s still a lot of work to do.
The economic conditions of black life in urban America aren’t going to change overnight. But the national conversation about race will be transformed in any number of ways.
Rep. Artur Davis, a black Democrat from Alabama, said blacks would no longer be able to portray themselves credibly as perennial “victims,” not with the Obama family living in the White House.
“That vocabulary, that way of talking about issues has to change,” Davis said, suggesting that questions of social need would have to be framed in terms of opportunity and economics rather than race.
“It can’t simply be a conversation about who did what to whom. A significant number of white Americans will reject that conversation.”
Obama made much the same point during his race speech in Philadelphia in March, saying that blacks must bind “our particular grievances … to the large aspirations of all Americans.”
Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, said earlier this year that Obama’s black supporters were “voting for the end of race as we’ve known it.”
His point was to alert blacks to the possibility that some whites might use an Obama victory to argue that the society no longer needed to concern itself with black poverty, economic inequality and affirmative action.
“Barack Obama knows this, but America is deeply confused about it,” Loury said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter