This January, Barack Obama became the President of the United States.
It was truly a remarkably moment in our history, for a wide variety of reasons. Obama’s inauguration marked a dramatic reversal in our national politics, likely ending a generation of conservative Republican domination in Washington. It brought a successful conclusion to a new kind of campaign, one based in savvy use of the internet for political fundraising and organizing. It captured the collective imagination of a whole generation of young Americans, inspiring youth political engagement in ways not seen in this country since the era of John F. Kennedy half a century ago.
But more than anything, Barack Obama’s inaugural was remarkable—amazing, astounding, almost unbelievable, considering the long arc of American history—because a black man just became the President of the United States.
The sheer enormity of the moment almost dwarfed the particulars of the day—the words of Obama’s excellent speech, the pageantry of the inaugural spectacle, even the immense numbers of people who turned out in Washington to watch the event in person.
The sheer enormity of the moment was borne of the long and difficult history of race in this country. That story, of course, is much bigger than Barack Obama. Much movement toward racial progress occurred before Obama ever arrived on the scene, and much more remains to be made in the future. But it’s hard not to wonder whether what happened this year changed the meaning of race in America, forever.
The youngest of Obama’s voters, those in their late teens and early twenties, may be the least surprised about what happened this year. They grew up in a world in which the rigid racial boundaries of our past were just that—a part of our past – something that they primarily learned about in school while studying the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or experiencing the segregated South through the eyes of children in To Kill a Mockingbird. (Not to say that they didn’t confront vexing racial issues of their own, but the lines weren’t drawn quite as sharply as they were in earlier eras.)
But we don’t have to look too far into our nation’s past to begin to see the dark racial legacy that made Obama’s election such a stunning revelation to anyone older than about 35.
As recently as the 1990s, hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur rhymed, without generating much controversy, that “although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready to see a black president”; the country divided bitterly along racial lines when a jury found former football star OJ Simpson not guilty of murdering his white wife.
As recently as the 1970s and 1980s, white citizens rioted over school desegregation in supposedly liberal northern cities like Boston, while widespread demonization of black people loomed large in public debates over welfare, crime, and affirmative action.
As recently as the 1960s, it was illegal, in many southern states, for whites and blacks to marry each other, to share the same hotels or restaurants, to use the same bathrooms or water fountains. Before 1965, black people who tried to vote in many parts of this country faced violent intimidation or even death.
All of this in Barack Obama’s own lifetime.
All of this, without even mentioning the even deeper past of slavery – a debate which helped spark The Civil War – and abolition, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the three-fifths compromise and the “twenty negars” sold into servitude in Virginia in 1619—that’s one year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
And yet, despite all this—or perhaps, in a strange way, because of it—a black man named Barack Obama this year became our president. This year, perhaps, American history changed.