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Inland Valley Daily Bulletin (Ontario, CA) Opinions Section, B2 Sunday, November 9, 2008 Guest Columnist: Renford Reese, Ph.D.

The Meaning of Obama's Victory

The Meaning of Obama’s Victory When Michelle Obama stated during the presidential campaign that, “For the first time in my adult lifetime I’m really proud of my country” most open-minded people knew what she meant—especially now.  I have never been prouder of America. Barack Obama’s monumental presidential victory has inspired hope that America can live up to the egalitarian principles embedded in its constitution.  This moment ranks with the Emancipation Proclamation, the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery, and the Brown decision as one of the most significant events in the history of U.S. race relations.

The exuberance of this moment parallels the 13th Amendment in many ways.   There was euphoria among the slaves that were freed in 1865.  However, after the celebrations ended reality set in—the freed slaves had no land, no property, hence, no way to support themselves.  The black man who is serving a disproportionate 15-year sentence for the possession of two ounces of narcotics will still serve his sentence.  The poor mother who could not afford to put food on the table for her two children on November 3 will probably not be able to put food on the table for her children on January 21, the day after the new president is sworn in. 

Obama, in his eloquent, gracious, and solemn acceptance speech warned his supporters against thinking that he will be able to feed the multitudes with a fish and a loaf of bread.  His caution included these words: “For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime--two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century...The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.”  When the euphoria wanes, people will come to realize Obama’s limitations.  He will be hamstrung by eight years of mismanagement, corruption, and ill-advised policies.  Any changes that he makes will necessarily be incremental. He will not be able to change the lot of millions of Americans overnight.

With that said, his election should not be trivialized. Obama has lit the fire of hope in millions of people in the United States and around the world.  He has made it possible for the 11-year old Hispanic girl, the 12-year old Chinese boy, and the 13-year old African American boy to believe that with hard work, discipline, and commitment, that they can be anything they want to be in America.  Until November 4, this was our most glaring myth.

What does Obama’s victory say about the current state of race relations in America? Obama has given millions of people a common conversation.  Dialogue is at the core of racial understanding.  By now, all Obama supporters have experienced that common conversation in the hallway at work, in the bathroom, in the break room, etc.  By now, irrespective of ethnic background, we have all found ourselves chatting about the man and the moment. 

A leader like Obama comes to us once a generation.  This is acknowledged in the words of Colin Powell, the joy of Oprah Winfrey, and in the apologetic tears of Jesse Jackson. The world has witnessed the charisma and brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr., the perseverance and humility of Nelson Mandela, and the spiritual radiance of Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Obama embodies the characteristics of all these great leaders plus something.  We cannot put our finger on that "something" but we see it in his calm demeanor and we feel it when he speaks.  He is both ordinary and extraordinary. He fundamentally understands that you get what you give.  If you give respect you get respect--if you give love you get love.  He fundamentally understands that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.  This is why people are drawn to him.

The world became a better place on November 4; we could sense it on November 5--the sun seemed to shine brighter.  Nevertheless, with all the rays of sunshine Obama has brought to the world, he still cannot walk on water.  Hence, we need to recognize this and be realistic and patient with him as he takes us on his historic journey.

– Renford Reese, Ph.D., is a professor in the Political Science Department and the Director of the Colorful Flags Program at Cal Poly Pomona University. He is the author of “American Bravado” (2008), "Prison Race” (2006), and the widely discussed "American Paradox: Young Black Men” (2004).  He is also the author of the Starbucks “The Way I See It” Quote #294. 

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