Commentary: Can Barack Obama Change the Importance of Race for Us?

November 06, 2008

UMNS Commentary
By Jeneane Jones*

Nov. 6, 2008
I watched the civil rights movement play out largely on nightly television. Brown vs. Brown meant my elementary schoolmates all looked different. But the teachers all looked the same. Housing discrimination was outlawed, enabling black people to move into previously all-white neighborhoods. But when we did, white people left, and so did the quality of our neighborhood services. While my family could shop in the same markets as white people, the store managers didn't seem to mind that the produce was a bit older, the bread a little staler.
I recall that, at age 11, I cringed and turned away as the black and white news film flickered on the TV set and Walter Cronkite described water hoses being turned on people who looked like me on the streets in Birmingham. In those days, my father was a firefighter in the newly integrated fire department of Oakland, California. As the family watched together, he explained that the brutal force of the fire hoses on those young people could break ribs, tear skin, and even kill. One of a few blacks in his East Oakland fire station, my father had been taught personal lessons about the pain of those hoses. Some of his white co-workers had turned them on him before, during a fire, blowing him off a roof.
I wonder now what my late father would say about the election of Barack Obama as our next President of the United States.
The night after the election, a homeless man rolled his wheelchair up to a line of people behind a black SUV on a street corner in Washington D.C. They were waiting to buy a newspaper chronicling that day's historic events. "What’s the fuss?" the man asked no one in particular. "What do you think that man can do?" His comments went largely ignored, but the man kept talking. He asked people to buy him a newspaper and some food and to help fill the cup of change he jangled. After I promised him a paper, he thanked me, but kept telling us, "He won’t do anything. He’s just another black man." There was bitterness and pain in that voice, a homeless black man claiming wisdom he’d rather not own.
This country and its people have been marketing and branding the concept of color to generations, to every race of people, to every country—and getting results that no Madison Avenue advertising firm ever could achieve. When describing inanimate objects, black is impressive, beautiful—the classic black dress, the sleek black limousine. But used to describe living, human creatures, the hues of black and brown become synonymous with concepts like "less than" and words like "suspicious" and "dangerous."
On election night, just before midnight, one African-American man, a black man, introduced the possibility that a marketing strategy that had succeeded for generations might soon face its own demise—that using black to mean "less than," or to suggest being a liability, is inaccurate.
The election of Sen. Barack Obama as our 44th President signals transformation—of a word and, with it, a people. It was the pronouncement that the United States is no longer operating under the black and white paradigm that qualified leadership must have a particular look that is white and male.
President-elect Obama’s success at the polls is an acknowledgement that a person of color, particularly an African-American man, can lead a nation—not based on oratory, but on a man’s willingness to reach out to a diverse group of U.S. citizens with a message that draws masses together. Throughout his campaign, Obama refused to reject his ethnicity. At the same time, he refused to let it define him. He is an example to all of us of what it looks like to define ourselves, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, by the content of our character.
In the days following his election, the comments and tactics of fear continue: Obama is "mysterious," "we know little about him," and on and on. So race in America is still an issue. But he gives us reason to believe that the importance we place on race can change and be diminished. Most significantly for people of faith, Barack Obama offers us the chance to be part of that change. With his call for unity, he has reintroduced to us the concept that Jesus Christ himself tried to teach—that we are all one in the eyes of God. Barack Obama’s victory calls us together as one America. As Christians, we can raise that refrain to a new level, adding that we are one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.
The eyes of the world were watching us on election night—out of curiosity, even out of admiration. From today forward, they will watch us to see what becomes of this new era.

*Jones is assistant chief executive over media relations for the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race. She was Director of Communications for the California-Nevada Annual Conference before accepting the UMCORR position.