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The New York Sun

 

Obama’s American

February 07, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

I’m sick this week. I was supposed to be recording lectures on linguistics on DVD for the Teaching Company. But my yearly bout of bronchitis has laid me low. Back when I was a professor at Berkeley I gave a lecture when I had shingles. I thought that I was invincible. But here I am, wheezing and achy, unable to fulfill my duties. This is the first time illness has prevented me from doing something important. I am adjusting to something new. As I am also in watching the primary results. For example, the press grants great import to people endorsing presidential candidates. The idea seems to be that it’s like the old days when a bigwig would announce whom he was for, give favors to the little people in his ward, and penalize any who did not vote his way, like something in a William Kennedy novel. As of these primaries, I am learning something new: that endorsements often no longer mean much. Voters have televisions and laptops. The sentiments of some public “leader” no longer loom so large in their decisions. The press went ape over Senator Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama. Yet Hillary Clinton won that state. Meanwhile, august figures Andrew Young and John Lewis endorsed Mrs. Clinton in Georgia, and yet Mr. Obama took the state. As I have always opined, whatever residual affection black people have for Bill Clinton, and however many black people tell pollsters they are undecided between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama out of a discomfort with seeming predictable, most black people, faced in the voting booth with the opportunity to vote for a serious black presidential candidate, will. Or, I hope all of us have conclusively learned something else new, which I have heartily suspected and now see confirmed: white people will vote for a black candidate in heavy numbers. “America isn’t ready for a black president,” the wise folks have told us. To them, Mr. Obama’s victories in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama are unimportant because of their heavy black contingent.

Yet now Mr. Obama has taken Idaho —

where the old mega-white Andy Hardy films were set — and Minnesota, North Dakota (“Fargo,” anyone?), where there are more cows than people and the number of black ranchers would likely fit in a phone booth, and Kansas, where there was once a hideous set-to waged by people who wanted to make it a slavery state.

A year ago countless people seeing themselves as ahead of the curve were solemnly intoning that we should not get too excited about Mr. Obama because of the racism that would certainly bar him from getting far beyond the starting line. Quite simply, they were wrong.

Even if he doesn’t become president, he’ll have gotten much closer than our Cassandras thought possible. We who say that America is getting past race are not Pollyannas. We are engaging with reality. Reality is not perfect — but it is not 1962 either./

For example, I am the only black professor who has done a Teaching Company set, out of a few hundred. And more to the point, the set I did for them in 2004 and the one I am doing now are not about race. Importantly, no one cares. On those sets, I am just a person, and if I may, the color of my skin has impeded sales of the first set not a bit.

Just 25 years ago, this would have been less likely. Yet as we move on, black people will become increasingly comfortable being just people in public rather than black people, and America will become increasingly comfortable with them doing so. Neil Tyson, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, is someone I have always admired in this vein.

Mr. Obama’s quest to run as just a person is Exhibit A in this sense. It’s a modern frame of mind, engaging with reality instead of striking poses minted during the Johnson administration. It’s the kind of thing that the Polish 20-something who works at the register at a convenience store a few blocks from my house got me thinking about.

There are many more foreign-born whites and blacks in Greater New York than black Americans. The cashier is one of the many immigrants who makes America a mutt nation of the sort that Mr. Obama is wise to address without Manichaean “Black Power” rhetoric that no longer corresponds to on-theground reality.

She, under the impression that my game attempts at enunciating her tricky name mean that I am somehow receptive to Polish unfiltered, told me “Dobranoc” — “Good Night” — as I took my bag of cough syrup and Sudafed.

Well, to all of you as I go to sleep off this cold, Dobranoc.

Original Source: http://daily.nysun.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=TllTLzIwMDgvMDIvMDcjQXIwMDgwMA==&Mode=HTML&Locale=english-skin-custom

 

 
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