The Real America

by Marc Golub, assistant professor of politics and international relations

It is very late, and my two-year-old daughter is sound asleep. The talking heads on the TV have long since run out of things to say about the election. They keep using the word “historic,” and I am starting to wonder what made me agree to write this column (knowing it would be due Thursday morning) reflecting on what it means that America has just elected its first African-American president.

I took Zoe with me to the polls this morning and pointed out all the people in line. I tried to explain what they were doing. She learned to say, “voting for Obama.” Later, we all watched election returns together.

I am thrilled to think that she will grow up with expectations for this country that are quite different than mine. Obama did not win this election because of race. If anything, he won despite race. I did not think this possible in America, but it happened. What does it mean?

Now that McCain has conceded — “graciously” the TV says — and Obama has won, everything seems different, and I wonder along with the talking heads: How different will things be? Different how?

As someone who teaches and writes about race for a living, I am particularly sensitive to the narratives through which this country thinks its racial past and present, and tonight I am thinking hard about the word “progress.” This is not only because of the media’s relentless focus on African-America’s response to the election (images keep pouring in from Harlem, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Spellman College, Inglewood) but due also to Obama’s explicit framing of the victory as a culmination to the Civil Rights Movement.

In his acceptance speech, he invokes the classic Sam Cooke song: “It’s been a long time coming… ” but “change has come to America.” And he issues a challenge that feels directed precisely to me: “If anyone out there doubts that America is a place where anything is possible — tonight is your answer.” One finds an almost identical line in McCain’s concession speech. As a political scientist, I know that much of this language is pure strategy: the GOP tries to blacken Democrat candidates, the Democrats try to dis-identify from its African-American base. Is this what has changed?

To their credit, McCain-Palin did less race-baiting than anyone expected — and notably less than Senator Clinton did in the Democratic primaries. Perhaps more importantly, the overt and covert racial attacks from a conservative GOP base (scary doctored images of Obama and Bin Laden; violent threats and attacks against black early-voters in North Carolina; “vote McCain, not Hussein”; “the real America”) simply did not work this time. Is this what has changed?

Joe the Plumber may never have been “the real America,” but assertions of racially exclusive membership (in the midst of a quietly vicious nativist backlash) have proven remarkably effective. But not tonight. Is this what has changed?

Even on this “historic” night, I am torn between celebration and remembrance: of men and women killed for their participation in freedom struggle, of centuries of accumulated power, and privilege that won’t disappear without a fight. America is still anything but “post-racial.”

But there is another sense in which “the real America” has changed — and it has less to do with persuasion or conversion (McCain still won almost 60% of white male voters) than with organizing and turn-out. The real story of this election seems less about Obama’s crossover appeal than his ability to transform the electorate through organizing, voter registration, voting rights monitors, and GOTV.

In mobilizing nine million newly registered voters in key battleground states (particularly voters of color and young people), the Obama campaign literally transformed “the real America” — by transforming the electorate itself, not just the electoral map.

This kind of change is not the culmination of inevitable Civil Rights progress. It is the result of hard work by countless organizers and volunteers (some Scripps students included). It is not the change that so many millions demanded and worked so hard for. But it could be a beginning, at least, of a grass-roots movement for multiracial democracy in America. And that is change we can believe in.

The article was written for voice, the student newspaper, published November 7. It is reprinted with permission of the author and voice editors.