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Vox Populi: Now That the Black Guy Is in Charge

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By J. Martin Favor, associate professor of English and of African and African American studies

J.Martin Favor (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Some things are going to change. Most won't change overnight or in front of our eyes. "Obama" is not a magical incantation. The presence of Barack Obama and his family in the White House, however, is going to lead us to have to rethink how we view our ideas of "race," nationality, and ethnicity.

The inauguration on Jan. 20 will mark, as the President-elect himself has suggested, the dawning of a new day. It may signal the real beginnings of a post-racial era. Let's think a bit about that term. "Post-racial" does NOT mean that race doesn't matter any longer. It does NOT mean that we are all struck color blind. If we look at Obama's own words: "race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now," we see a call to wrestle anew with the demons of color and caste.

It does mean, though, that we can and will need to start thinking about "race" in different and more sophisticated ways. For some, it will seem nothing but "natural" to see an African American family in the White House; for others it will take considerable getting used to. We are not going to forget that the Obamas are African American, but rather come to understand that African Americans can, have, and will continue to occupy a variety of social positions. Snap judgments and associations based on color will necessarily be complicated. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" was racial; President Obama standing in the middle of the G8 group portrait is post-racial.

"Post-racial" means that we begin to unpack all our unconscious racial baggage and see beyond black and white as simplistic opposites. "Post-racial" implies that we have to understand that there isn't ONLY black and white that define American social relations. "Post-racial" doesn't mean that we emphasize that Obama is biracial, which seems to be a favorite subject of the media. Rather, it suggests that we need to look at how his base of support comes from a coalition of black, brown, white, and young, and we need to grasp how these are not competing groups but categories with overlapping interests. American politics isn't about getting the goodies for "your people" but about delivering on promises for a variety of communities in need.

Now Barack Obama has the biggest community organizer job of all. It's a job that will not only potentially realign racial reasoning within the United States but also around the world. Whether we realize it or not, when we selected Obama for President, we issued both a promise and a challenge to nations around the globe. The ecstatic global reaction to Nov. 4 genuinely celebrates the promise of the United States as a nation where an immigrant's child can become president. Over time, that celebration will also morph into a challenge. If Americans, with our history of racial oppression, can move to this point, can other nations around the world also depart from their own histories of racial and ethnic supremacy? Can an Asian become prime minister of the UK? Can an ethnic minority become the leader of Malaysia?

If, as W.E.B. DuBois presciently stated, "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line," then it falls to us to think about how we, in the 21st century, might benefit from developing a new vocabulary, a new set of attitudes, and a new set of social relationships to remedy what DuBois saw as a "problem." It's risky, even scary, because we may very well have to abandon anchoring ideas about our own identities in an effort to progress. But that's the promise of post-racial change. It's what many young people have already begun to embrace as the natural course of life, and now that a black guy is in charge, we may just be ready to let go of that past.

This essay was previously published in the Huffington Post.

"Vox Populi" (the voice of the people) is an ongoing series of commentary and opinion by members of the Dartmouth faculty and administration. Click here to submit an idea for this column.


Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration: Live Coverage of Events

The live viewing will be followed by light refreshments at 1 p.m. in the Top of the Hop. Co-sponsored by the Hopkins Center for the Arts and the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences.

  • Tuesday, January 20, doors open 10:30 a.m.
  • Hopkins Center for the Arts, Spaulding Auditorium
  • Free and open to the public. Seating is first come, first served, no tickets required.
  • 646-3492


Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 1/16/09