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2004: Prologue

In 2004, I was in America – traveling by road between Las Vegas and the Georgia coast – when Barack Obama made his ‘no blue states, no red states’ keynote at that year’s Democratic convention. I’d never been that Hilary Clinton had much chance in ’08 or any other future year, but then and there you already knew she had another problem.

During the same visit, we were chatting to a young black girl, our waitress, about why I thought America was in a bunch of ways better than the UK. My dad summarised it best: “he thinks there’s more opportunity here.” The girl looked at me as if I was stone cold crazy.

As much as Obama will certainly disappoint almost everyone for one reason or another, as all politicians do; as much as he swept the electoral college without quite sweeping the nation; and as much as the passing of Prop 8 sours the ‘liberalisation of America’ narrative: I sort of hope that, wherever she is today, that waitress wouldn’t pull so funny a face at my naivety.

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4 thoughts on “2004: Prologue

  1. Su says:

    Blimey, was that four years ago? Time flies when you’re having fun, right? :-p

    But, without wishing to rain on your parade, I think you’re still being somewhat naive. Obama’s win changes the American, probably global, *political* landscape, without doubt. And, along with Palin’s VP campaign and Clinton’s Presidential primary campaign, it represents a clear demonstration that some of the old barriers are diminished. But does it really represent a significant change to the opportunities available to the average American minimum-wage earner? Your waitress, struggling to arrange or pay a mortgage, struggling to co-pay her health bills, struggling to find decent education for her children might think not; and she might point to the amount of casual sexism aimed at Clinton and Palin as proof that there are more barriers to advancement than even Obama has faced.

  2. danhartland says:

    All of that’s true. But, at the same time, you need to divorce ‘opportunity’ from ‘equality’. Yes, pretty much nothing material has changed for poor Americans of all colours, including African Americans. But ask yourself where the frontbench black person is in the British Cabinet, let alone a potential leader, and I think you might begin to see my point. I’m not talking money in pockets; I’m talking about something less intangible, which can nevertheless mean something to someone with nothing much else and a steep hill to climb.

    It’s not that Obama’s election somehow undoes centuries of inequality, or the present endemic prevalence of racism or sexism. It is that, with his election, what once every pundit in the world said – a black man cannot be elected President of the United States – is simply no longer true. You might call seeing some symbolic power in the fact of a black First Family naive; I’d call dismissing its potency as unnecessarily cynical. Sometimes, whatever challenges its lack still leaves us, the importance of an event is not all about material effect.

  3. Su says:

    I’m not confusing equality and opportunity, neither am I ignoring or downplaying the potency of the image of an African American in the White House. There’s no doubt at all that a glass ceiling has been shattered into smithereens – just as one was shattered by Hilary Clinton’s primary campaign.

    But honestly I think that Obama’s ethnicity is going to have more of a political impact than a social one; and ironically, I think his policies will have the social impact. The average American – of whatever colour or race or faith – is going to see more positive impact on their daily lives in the next four years because a thoughtful, intelligent, consensus-seeking Democrat is in the White House than because an African American man is.

    Obama is both a symbol and the next President of the US. Symbols don’t actually change anything, they act as a lightning rod for change; Presidents can change things.

  4. danhartland says:

    I’ve been thinking about this the last couple days, and wanted to link to two pieces that are thinking along the same lines as I am. You’re right: policy is king, and progressive policies will be what solve real problems. But legislation cannot be passed to alter perceptions. This, I think, is what I’m talking about and what you’re raising an eyebrow at.

    Howard Jacobson says it explicitly: “The cultural effect of Obama might turn out to be greater than the political.”

    Henry Louis Gates Jr, meanwhile, writes: “[Obama’s] victory is not redemption for all this [African American] suffering; rather, it is the symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, the grand achievement of a great, collective dream.” It is there that a great power, beyond mere legislators, may lie.

    Gates admits: “I wish we could say that Barack Obama’s election will magically reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies or the level of drug addiction in the black community. I wish we could say that what happened last night will suddenly make black children learn to read and write as if their lives depended on it, and that their high school completion rates will become the best in the country. I wish we could say that these things are about to happen, but I doubt that they will.” And yet that ultimate colour line has still been crossed. And the waitress knows it, even as she hopes for something more material.

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