I know I’m supposed to be cynical about Barack Obama. The political process is broken, the cynics say, crushed by three decades of Republican rule, undermined by a stupefied—or stupid-fried—electorate, and sabotaged by a media industrial complex the likes of which Dwight Eisenhower could never have imagined.
The naysayers tell me that Barack Obama is just another politician, motivated by ego, programmed to manipulate. “Change,” they scoff, is simply another slogan cooked up by the politicos in Washington and the greed-is-good guys on Wall Street, and Obama is as beholden to special interests as George W. Bush. Even if he does manage to convince the American people to overcome hundreds of years of ingrained racism to elect him, what will he really do?
There is some truth to this, of course. The system is broken—not least, in my view, because of the so-called Chattering Class, those venal, egomaniacal babblers who occupy cable television; ostensibly watchdogs of our government, they are actually daily betrayers of the public trust—and Obama is most certainly a politician.
Even so, I believe in him. And to explain why, I have to go back to a high school assembly that took place almost ten years ago, long before I ever heard Obama’s name.
I grew up in the late ’90s-early ’00s in a primarily white neighborhood in Seattle near the University of Washington. Each morning, I rode the bus twenty minutes south to the Central District (CD), the city’s historically African-American neighborhood where I went to school from first grade until graduation. Seattle is actually a very white place—one of the paler big cities in America—but I never realized it until after I graduated from high school.
To claim that some kind of racial harmony existed in those schools would be false. In elementary and middle schools, especially, blacks hung with blacks, whites with whites. It didn’t help that most of the white kids, like me, lived in the wealthier, northern and western districts, and were then bussed to the “CD” as part of a program for advanced students. (In their infinite wisdom, the education wonks had managed to create a school environment where class and race intersected even more precisely than in broader society). In the third grade, I got beat up by a black playground bully named Jimmy, who mistook me for some other white kid who had allegedly heckled his little brother. Lying in the woodchips while Jimmy and a couple of his friends stomped on the back of my head, I remember questions welling up inside me, before the pain, and the tears: But why? What did I do?
To argue that Jimmy didn’t know any better would be condescending and, worse, explicitly wrong. Jimmy knew precisely what he was doing. He was unleashing a short lifetime worth of anger and resentment onto a readily accessible target.
Jimmy was probably angry for many reasons independent of sociology, but I’m sure the small army of privileged white kids invading his neighborhood playground every afternoon didn’t help. On the other end, my mom, a good Jewish mother secure in our mock-suburban barracks of the north end, was predictably, responsibly upset. She urged me to write a letter to the school administrator, describing what had happened “from my perspective.”
I declined to write anything. I didn’t know how to explain this to my mother, but I felt less anger at what had happened than a pervasive sense of sadness. You could do nothing wrong and still be punished for it. Pain was something caused and received and passed on, spread from one person to another like a game of hot potato. These, and other, less articulate realizations, struck me with sudden force.
That was a moment, as I look back now, that forever separated me from my parents. They were former hippies turned middle-class progressives, hardly of the old school; yet they belonged to a different generation, a generation of white people and black people, of Jews and gentiles, of one or the other. My mom grew up Jewish among Jews; my dad Italian among Italians; and I grew up an Italian-Jewish kid with little connection to either heritage, a member of a generation whose culture was fluid and arbitrary, determined more by a shared experience with popular culture and technology than by any particular ethnic or racial history.
In this way, Jimmy was himself an anachronism: a kid schooled in the paradigms of race operating in a world beginning to view itself another way. Mercifully, my advanced white boy program ended in eighth grade, and while certain aspects of our segregation continued into high school, you could feel some of the tension dissipating, like the hiss of helium rushing sideways through a subtle puncture in a balloon. The new high school had a storied history—it counted Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones among its alumni—and perhaps this contributed to the sense that we were all part of one school now. In previous years, you would frequently see fistfights in the halls, and the Central District was suffering from increasing gang warfare. But the high school itself was almost serene. It’s hard to remember even a single instance of public violence.
In February of my freshman year, we had an assembly to honor Martin Luther King Day. It wasn’t very much different from previous assemblies held at my middle school: A black girl performed a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner; a white boy gave a platitudinous speech about leadership or hard work, I can’t remember which. (There was one novelty, a troupe of Ethiopian girls who shook their asses so fast they managed to titillate the audience and inspire a sense of cultural appreciation all at once.) Then there was more singing, more dancing, more speeches.
I don’t remember exactly what it was about that day; but I do remember the feeling as I stood in the bleachers of the Garfield gym, this surge of emotion. It said—and we said back!—we are here, and we are different than what came before.
It said that we weren’t like our parents, or our parents’ parents—we weren’t subject to their prejudices or preconceptions. We weren’t connected to the America that practiced slavery and put people in internment camps, slaughtered Native Americans and tolerated the laws of Jim Crow.
It said that we have this power—awesome power—to make something new.
Such were my feelings in high school. Then I went to college, the first of three I would attend, and quickly received a remedial education in small-mindedness and unconscious bigotry.
I’ve since concluded that it wasn’t really my classmates’ fault. Many grew up in small towns and insular communities where perceptions of brown-skinned people are transmitted near wholesale from their television sets and FM radios to their kitchen table conversations. I was lucky to have had the experience I did, I knew that.
I continued to believe, though, that society was changing. Call me naïve. I thought John Kerry would win the presidency in 2004. When he gave his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, I shrieked at the television screen like a 12-year old girl. I thought the unbridled ignorance and obvious ill-intention of George W. Bush would ensure his downfall. I thought that change was coming.
So in December 2004, a month after Bush was re-elected, I dropped out of college. I couldn’t accept what his return to office spoke about our country.
Call me naïve. But two years ago, Barack Obama came to speak in my high-school gym, the same gym from the Martin Luther King Day assembly. (I had long since graduated, but my brother was a student there now). At the time, Obama was the junior senator from the state of Illinois, and he had come to support his colleague, Maria Cantwell (and also, I suspect, to dip his toe into the mucky waters of presidential campaigning). In 2003, Cantwell had famously voted to authorize military action against Iraq, and there was a prickly contingent of anti-Cantwell folk in attendance. As Obama began to speak, his baritone voice rumbling over the packed crowd, the protesters started to squirm and squawk from the sidelines. Soon, he couldn’t finish a sentence.
And so he began to speak directly to the people who had come to mock him. He spoke in a voice filled with respect and sadness, and also a kind of cautious optimism. It was an expansive voice, encompassing both the sniping of the protesters and the good will of his supporters—not a drowning out, but a bringing in. It was a voice that spoke to that same joy I felt standing in those bleachers as a freshman, to that gratitude of inclusion—and to the pain I experienced as an outsider with my head in the woodchips. It addressed the paralyzing disappointment I felt when Bush was reelected. It wasn’t so much a voice as a signal, a signal that it was all right to care again, to consider the future of our society. To harness that awesome power.
If Barack Obama is elected president, he will no doubt, in certain regards, be just another politician. I may be naïve, but I can acknowledge this much. Politics is a game of compromise and navigation, and the president has only so much power to control policy. Things will not just magically get better.
But the election of Barack Obama is not about a new array of policy positions. It is not about the Iraq War or our plunging economy, though there is little doubt he will work toward troop withdrawal, establishing a national healthcare system, and a framework for green energy.
The election of Barack Obama instead would be a signal to all of us in this country who are tempted by cynicism and by nihilism, those of us prone to half-hearted criticism and full-hearted despair, that while now is the time to shift the government’s course, it’s also an opportunity for a more important kind of change—in our attitudes towards each other.
Call me naïve, but the election of Barack Obama would be a signal that we are remembering how to love.
Alex Gallo-Brown is a Seattleite living in Brooklyn.