My daughter and I were watching CNN this morning and caught Oprah in tears over the election of Barack Obama. My daughter turned to me and asked why were African-Americans so emotional over this victory?
I answered that it was an historic election. That while her generation viewed the idea of an African-American President as inevitable, those of us in older generations did not. She said she realized this was historic but she was still a little amazed at the response.
I've been thinking about how to clarify things for her. How do I explain to a white teenage college student what growing up in the US as an African-American is like when I myself am white? I can only turn to history.
In 1964 the Civil Rights Acts was passed. 1964, the year I was born. Before this legislation, African-Americans faced a kind of discrimination that, as someone who has never experienced it even second-hand, I cannot quite comprehend. Or understand. My parents, God rest them, grew up during the Great Depression in East Texas. They learned racism along with their ABCs. As a child of the 70s growing up in Houston, I did not. I rejected their discrimination and vowed to raise my children as color-blind as possible. As, I think, many of my generation did. For us, the institutionalized racism was a thing of the past. We sought to create a new generation that would not hold the same prejudices of our parents.
The Civil Rights Act encouraged desegregation of schools, sought to eliminate discriminatory practices for public facilities and voter registration and prevent discriminatory practices in government agencies. Before this act was passed it was common to see African-American voters in the South subjugated to a literacy test before they would be allowed to vote, discrimination in public transportation, restaurants, movie theaters and more was commonplace. For everyone born before 1960, this means that they were exposed to the kind of discrimination and racism that the current generation, especially those not of color, simply cannot comprehend.
That means for folks like Oprah and Spike Lee and Jesse Jackson, they have seen discrimination as a regular part of their lives for many years. Despite the Civil Rights Act, African-Americans face discrimination daily. Ask any African-American male. They've been pulled over by cops, had women cross the street as they walked down the side walk and generally been viewed as dangerous most of their lives. Why this is so has many explanations. From very real gang violence, to film and TV depictions, Rap music and more.
My daughter's generation, I like to think, has learned to look beyond the color of a person's skin, beyond their sexuality, beyond their professed faith or lack thereof to see the quality of the person. For them, the question wasn't do I vote for the Black guy or the White guy? It was who is the better candidate, who has the better ideas to move this country forward, who resorts to ugly, divisive tactics?
My daughters both voted for the first time this election. Many of their friends voted. Some actually returning home to just to vote early. Others by mail in ballots. Still others proudly taking their place in line yesterday. This election was for them. Those youth who watched and were disgusted with the last eight years but were still too young to vote. It will be days yet before we get the final results of the youth vote in America but my gut tells me they voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. This is one more reason this election is historic. They proved the pundits who had them pegged as apathetic very, very wrong.
I think this election, as the years pass, will be seen as a watershed moment not just for African-Americans, but for the power of the Internet. Gone are the days of candidates saying whatever they wanted, spreading lies and half-truths, and speaking to the fringe of their party as if they were the most important people on the continent. From blogs, to YouTube (yea YouTube!), to fact checking websites, the people were able to make informed decisions without relying on the main stream media and the candidates themselves. Maybe it's that I'm a child of Watergate. I lost all respect for politicians after Nixon and took whatever they told me as unreliable at worst and misguided at best. I'm of that generation that just assumes all politicians are lying to me. So for me, the idea that I can determine who's actually lying to me is nothing short of miraculous.
But back to my daughter's question. the only answer I can give her is that for the first time, African-Americans can look at the President of the United States of America and see someone who looks like them. That is no small thing. As our country's demographics move increasingly towards a non-White majority, it is time for the face of our country to reflect that. For those who thought it could never happen, whether they felt so out of desperation or righteous indignation, we the people have proven you wrong.
America looks the same way it did yesterday. It is up to all of us to set aside our differences and work for America, all of America. Let it be so.