Whatever else history has in store for us over the next four years, old definitions and categories will no longer apply.
When Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses back in January, I wrote in this space that the nation had passed a turning point: White voters were now capable of taking a black presidential candidate seriously, and of judging him solely on his ideas and the content of his character. I’ve wanted to take back that little spasm of naïveté more than once over the past 11 months, even as Obama rolled up primary victories and routinely filled football stadiums with 80,000 weeping admirers. Throughout the primaries and the general election, Barack Hussein Obama’s provenance became a recurring subtext, making him both a symbol of hope and a dangerous Other. Not so long ago, Obama’s chief Democratic rival argued that it was foolish for the party to nominate him, because “hardworking people, white people,” wouldn’t vote for him.
Hillary Clinton might have been right, had history or fate or fortune not conspired against that kind of cynicism. When the financial industry imploded in September and John McCain suddenly looked confused and erratic, working people in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Virginia took a second look at the Democrat. The dynamic young man they saw seemed so composed, so gifted with grace and intelligence—so comfortable in his skin—that his skin’s color no longer mattered much. And so the nation built partly through the sweat of slaves, that in my lifetime still outlawed the miscegenation that produced Barack Obama, has made a biracial man its president. Whatever else history has in store for us over the next four years, old definitions and categories will no longer apply; once-sharp divisions will begin to blur. Hope will get its test.