Judith Warner definitely gets this point, but it is not until the last paragraph that she writes about her own identification with the cause of equal rights: “This moment of triumph marks the end of such a long period of pain, of indignity and injustice for African-Americans. And for so many others of us, of the trampling and debasing of our most basic ideals, beliefs that we cherished every bit as deeply and passionately as those of the ‘values voters’ around whose sensibilities we’ve had to tiptoe for the past 28 years.”

Though John McCain’s concession speech was generally gracious, I found his remarks on the racial significance of Obama’s victory jarring. “This is an historic election,” he began, “and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.” I was surprised at the distancing rhetoric—“the special pride that must be theirs”? McCain went on to express pride that “we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation.” He clearly understands why blacks should be happy, but he suggests white Americans should take satisfaction because the Obama victory improves our national image.

It is probably too much to ask a man who just lost a big election to take personal satisfaction in his opponent’s victory. And, of course, McCain has had an uncomfortable relationship with the civil rights legacy, this year apologizing for having opposed the creation of Martin Luther King Day. But for older generations, the particularist frame of the civil rights struggle wins out over the universalist one. The message of the civil rights movement that I was taught is that my personal redemption as a white American lies in addressing the inequalities that affect even groups to which I do not belong. The fight is not to get a particular group access to privileges reserved for some, but rather to challenge the very nature of privilege. This is what separates a movement for human rights from one for special rights.

Regardless of race—or, for that matter, party—all Americans are better off when unjust barriers to opportunity fall. Obama’s election is an opportunity to see, as King wrote, that we are “tied in a single garment of destiny.”

 

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.