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Whether Barack Obama gets into the White House or not, we are about to look into the mirror as a nation. As always, the image that will be reflected back at us depends on who we are politically, racially, generationally, culturally and regionally. But even with all of those defining factors, what we will find in the mirror depends on which side of America’s duality ultimately tilts the scale between now and Election Day in November.
One side of us is full of hope and expectation that we’ll have reached a new stage of maturation at the end of this presidential election, one that says that racism, while an ever present part of our peculiarly American way of life, no longer has a stranglehold on our morality and our sense of what’s in our own and collective best interests. The other side clings to a deeply-rooted culture of cynicism, fear and, yes, hate–not the bugged-eyed, rabid, bloodthirsty, mob-violent kind most associated with our racist past, but the more insidiously dangerous, quiet, common kind. You know: the kind that knows how to act in polite company, finds comfort in the status quo, blends in at work, wouldn’t dream of uttering the ‘N’ word and quietly suffers diversity training and the browning of schools, professions, social circles, neighborhoods and cultural traditions.
These are the combatants in a kind of Cold War for America’s future. That conflict is at the heart of why at least a few of the disappointed supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton, presumably staunch Democrats, will vote for Republican Sen. and Presidential Nominee John McCain, not Democratic Sen. and Nominee Barack Obama–despite the fact that Obama and Clinton’s stances on the issues are nearly identical, while McCain’s could hardly be more antithetical to Democratic Party values. The choice facing white Democrats struggling with whether they can bring themselves to vote to make a black man the leader of the free world is not unlike the choice facing black Republicans (admittedly a much smaller voting bloc) who want to be loyal to the GOP and its values, yet are loathe to have to admit that they voted against Obama to their grandchildren someday.
This conflict is also the reason why most black Americans won’t be able to exhale until Obama makes it to his presidential inauguration in January 2009–and probably not even then. It can happen, it will happen, it MUST happen, we say to ourselves (and pray to our God). But the small voice in our head says, “This is still America. We’ll see.” We know that the presidential election is not about race, that Obama has done a masterful job of proving he’s the right person for the job regardless of race. But we also know that race often matters most when white Americans tell us (and themselves) that it does not matter at all.
That Obama has come this far–mind-blowingly, Twilight Zone, far, to any American over the age of 50–says much about how far our nation has come. But make no mistakes, everything to this point has just been the prelims. We’re out of the qualifiers and into the ultimate gold-medal round. To quote rap group Public Enemy’s Chuck D, “We all better put our hard-hats on when Obama gets elected!” And probably even if he doesn’t.
Starting with the DNC Convention, continuing through the RNC Convention, and on through November, we are going to learn more about ourselves and our fellow Americans than we may be prepared to know. The question is, will we be thrilled–or appalled? The mirror is in front of us, and our eyes are about to opened. Ready or not.