“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.”
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.