“You’re being racist,” said the daughter of New York Times columnist Judith Warner in response to her mother’s comment about “how particularly earth-moving this election was for black voters.” Warner reported this exchange in Thursday’s “Domestic Disturbances” column to illustrate how the young Americans who helped elect Barack Obama to the presidency have not merely overcome the racial divisions that long defined politics, but seem unable to fathom the divide that once existed. Warner showed her uncomprehending daughters Wednesday’s Times headline: “Racial Barrier Falls.” “This is huge,” she told them.
Warner’s language, and that of many others who have reflected on the racial implications of Obama’s election, raises a question: this is huge for whom? In Warner’s account, Obama’s victory belongs first and foremost to black voters. African-American Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson also claimed the day. After recounting the number of times he was brought to tears by the emotional election night reactions of civil rights leaders Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. John Lewis, Robinson wrote, “It’s obvious that the power of this moment isn’t something that only African Americans feel.…For African Americans, though, this is personal.”
The college students Marc Fisher describes celebrating in front of the White House Tuesday night, however, seemed to emphasize the universal implications of Obama’s victory over the particular significance it has for African-Americans. Twenty-three year-old Tim Nunn first marvels at the fact that “Everybody’s here…not just black, not just white—everybody,” before remarking that “This changes the way I look at myself as a black man and what I can accomplish in life.” Young adults were taking to the streets not because of what an Obama presidency means for African-Americans, but because, Fisher writes, “It felt like the American promise [had been] fulfilled.”
At twenty-eight, I am much closer in age to Nunn (and, for that matter, to Warner’s daughters) than to Warner or Robinson. And the emphasis Warner, Robinson, and others of their age have placed on the particular significance of Obama’s election to African-Americans suggests a generation gap in the way the civil rights struggle is viewed. Throughout history, civil rights for African-Americans has been framed in two ways: On the one hand, the civil rights movement aims to reverse the injustice done to a particular group, and victories in that struggle belong to members of that group. On the other hand, the fight for racial justice is a battle for America’s soul, and purging racism heals whites, blacks, and other racial groups alike.
Though older observers nod to this universalist frame, their coverage of this week’s events suggests they have not internalized it as deeply as have younger generations. Much of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s success was due to his rhetorical genius in arguing that whites were invested in their black fellow citizens’ lot. As he remarked in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech,
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
Writing from a Birmingham jail a few months earlier, King established that the principles at stake went to the heart of America’s purpose. “Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood,” he wrote. “Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”