A Canadian's perspective on domestic and international issues. Independent coverage of Canadian federal, provincial and municipal elections and anything of interest in Canada.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Don't dance on the tables quite yet!

I remember a November night way back in 1972 when I sat in my Dad’s yard listening to the US election results on a transistor radio. I’d gone to Ontario to visit my family at the time, and was missing my friends in BC. As it became clear Richard Nixon had won, hands down, my longing to be with my friends grew more intense. It was a dark day for them, and for me, and I wanted nothing more than to be with them, commiserating in the fact a war monger was being returned to office.
Last night I thought of those friends again. I haven’t seen many of them in decades. In fact, I only know where one of them is today. Some are dead, most have moved on with their lives. I’m sad the ones who have passed on did not live to witness what happened last night. A man of colour has become President of the United States. They would have been pleased.
We grew up watching and listening to Martin Luther King. He was a hero to many of us. In those days we witnessed first hand how people of colour were treated. Images of “white only” signs were splashed across our TV screens. While most of these images originated in the States, we knew too well that people of colour were also prejudiced against here in Canada.
In Grade Six we had a teacher who was black. His family had come north to Canada on the Underground Radio. This man was a decent teacher, not a great one. Perhaps the thing that really stood out about him was, he wasn’t much different than most of our other teachers. Still, we’d fuss over him, and often pay more attention in class then we would other teachers, but it wasn’t because he was a better teacher. It was because he was a different colour.
I was eight years old when Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. At the time I was living in a foster home in Brantford Ontario. My foster parents at the time were pretty keen on keeping up with the world, and we’d all sit down after supper and watch the evening news together, often American news. They were also devoted Christians, members of the local United Church congregation. Each Sunday we would diligently attend both Sunday School and regular services, and we all took our teachings quite seriously. Hearing King’s rumbling resonant voice, I was convinced the man was a prophet. The words, “judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin” reverberated with me.
With the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, part of Mr. King’s prophecy has come true, but perhaps it is time we once again refer to the warning in his words. That warning is: The colour of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the content of his character!
Barack Obama is not Martin Luther King! He is the son of an African and a middle class white woman from Kansas. Barack Obama is not a church minister. He is a Harvard educated lawyer and former president of the Harvard Law Review. Mr. Obama is not even a civil rights leader, but a former Illinois state senator, and a one term US Senator from Illinois. Barack Obama isn’t a socialist, a communist, or in any sense a radical. He is a moderate liberal with exceptional organizational and communication skills.
The election of a man of colour to the highest office in America is truly a historic event, and may well indicate that America, a racist country, has finally begun to look beyond skin colour. However, the election of a moderate liberal to the presidency really is nothing new. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and several others were moderate liberals. The only real difference between some of them, and the new president, is skin pigment, and people should not forget that.
While the election of Obama does indicate a change in US social conscience, it does not represent any drastic political change. And while it does demonstrate the American electorate’s desire to move away from the far right policies of the fledgling Bush administration, it does not mean a radical change in American political history.
Another thing for people to consider here is, while Obama and the Democratic Party did well in the electoral college, the popular vote only changed by a few percentage points. Almost as many people voted against Obama as voted for him. And while voter turnout jumped, almost as many new voters voted against the Democrats as voted for them. This was not a giant step to the left or right. It was a half step back, not a giant leap, away from the ideology of the past eight years. In fact, all things considered, the election of Barack Obama may well be considered a referendum on George W. Bush, more than a marked endorsement of the end of racism in America.
One of the more poignant moments in the election coverage last night, for me anyway, came just after Mr. Obama made his acceptance speech from Chicago. As Obama, Biden, and their families, stood on the stage waving at the crowd, a camera scanned the audience. There in the midst of it all stood former ML King supporter and Democratic presidential contender Jesse Jackson, openly weeping. Clearly, after his years of working with Mr. King, his decades in the civil rights movement, and his repeated attempts to end the culture of racism in the US, he was overjoyed to see a person of colour finally accepted. It was an emotional moment.
However, I found myself wondering, if Jesse Jackson had been the Democratic nominee, would the result have been the same. Somehow I doubt it. Mr. Jackson, for all his integrity, visibility, character, expertise, drive and qualifications, could not have won this race. In the minds of middle America, he would have been too radical and, I dare say, too black to have ever been elected to such high office! The election of Barack Obama does not signal an end to racism in America, it simply indicates that race is less of an issue than it once was.
It the truth be told, Mr. Obama would never have been elected if he’d preached a radical agenda. Had he come out against all war, and not just the war in Iraq, he would not have been elected. If he’d come out with a plan for universal healthcare, paid for by the state, he would not have been elected. If Obama has advocated welfare reform and argued for a guaranteed annual income, he would not have been nominated by his party, let alone elected nationally. If Obama had argued for wide spread strengthening of equal opportunity legislation, John McCain would be the President-elect of the United States! Chances are, if Obama had chosen black man, Jackson for example, to be his running mate, he would not be in the position he is in today.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as happy as anyone to see a person of colour elected to the presidency. The election of Obama clearly indicates that America has finally begun to view people according to the content of their character over the colour of their skin, but America has a long, long, way to go. Even with Obama at the helm, America is still the biggest threat to peace in the world. It remains an authoritarian superpower with a penchant for world domination. For all intent and purpose, Americans still be believe they are the biggest, the best, the most beautiful, and America still wants everyone else in the world to be just like it. America still has the most bombs, the most guns, and still meddles in the affairs of other countries. It still incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other nation on earth, and yes, it remains a racist country.
Yes, there is a change in America. Just as their is a change in a toddler when they break free of mother’s arms and take their first steps. America has a glow about it today, not unlike the glow on the face of a child who has walked a few steps for the first time. And yes, there is reason to celebrate, to be happy, to cheer them on.
However, taking a baby step in the right direction does not make a child a marathon runner, and like a runner in a marathon, America still has a long way to go, and no one really knows for sure if its up to the challenge.
The signs are good, and I will cheer them on, but it will be a long while yet before I do a victory lap, or go dancing on the tables.
Good start America, now where do we go from here?

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