November 4 is shaping up to be America’s final exam on race. Since the founding of the Republic, its politics, culture, economics and world standing has been shaped by the degree to which Black Americans have been systemically excluded from full participation in society due to their race. No other issue has so altered the course of this nation as has racial discrimination. It has permeated wars, economic crises, domestic politics and culture. And there has been no clear yardstick to measure its full impact than the degree to which Blacks have been denied access to the ultimate representation of power in this country – the Oval Office.
There have certainly been pop quizzes and tests along the way. Some failed, and some passed on re-takes. Plessy v. Ferguson comes to mind as an examination on which we failed miserably but redeemed ourselves with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. That was a major test, as was the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; each preceded by racial quizzes in which the nation scored low or failed, and had to be convinced it still had some lessons to conquer if it was ever going to live up to the lofty ideals expressed in its founding manifestos – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
So we endured through the period of violence and lynchings, most of it in the south but instances in the north too, the “desegregation,” not integration, of public secondary education and higher education, and a similar diversification of our military. Meanwhile, our political system was experiencing its own change as the campaign for the right to vote was embodied in thousands of “pop quizzes” in southern states as Blacks confronted local officials over their Constitutional rights. And culturally, Hollywood with its production of racially inflamed cinema such as “Birth of a Nation” and “The Santa Fe Trail,” and a burgeoning television industry, combined with print media, to provide thousands of tests of our racial sensibilities along the way.
Through it all the one test that Blacks privately have always acknowledged would be the ultimate measure of whether we were truly accepted by whites as Americans would be the election of a Black President. There is no other institution that represents power and inclusion as the Office of the President of the United States. It is symbolically and factually the ultimate expression of national identity in our country. The person who sits in that seat, and the group to which that person belongs, is seen as the full embodiment of our values. It is why the question of John F. Kennedy’s faith was so important to Catholic s in the United States. Because of the unique history of government sanctioned genocide, violence and discrimination, Black Americans and American Indians stand as the two groups for whom the election of one of their own as President is the ultimate confirmation of their full citizenship. Latinos have a claim but in this regard it’s not an equivalent. And while women, mainly white women, may offer the same argument, it can be said that in the role of First Lady, they have been closer to power than Blacks have ever been.
The attempts by the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm and Rev. Jesse Jackson to penetrate the barrier to real power in our nation, access to the White House, has been in many ways qualifying examinations for our country. Similarly, the election of Black mayors in non-majority Black cities, governors and United States Senators since Reconstruction has been a series of tests of our values. In each instance those elections tested the nation’s resolve to confront its history, acknowledge the contradictions of its actions and its rhetoric, and for white Americans, challenge their personal investment in a system that habitually provided them advantages based upon skin color.
The 2008 presidential campaign has been the ultimate exam prep and so far the nation’s readiness to take the final is questionable. While we have marveled over the acceptance of Senator Obama by so many whites, we are also deeply troubled and disturbed by the continued existence of deep racial hatred toward Blacks in this country. Hearing shouts of “off with his head” at a presidential candidate’s rally calls to mind the lynching picnics that were routine in the south where whites would gather with picnic baskets and children in tow to watch a Black person get tortured and hung. When doubts are raised about Senator Obama’s faith and his patriotism, we recall the manner in which we were denied religious freedom that resulted in a racially separate branch of Christianity, and the questioning of our loyalties during the Red Scare, despite our record of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War. Seeing stereotypical representations of Mr. Obama revisits a period in which art was used to dehumanize us. Likewise, suggestions that Senator Obama is somehow not fit to be President, despite his obvious intelligence and academic credentials, is a poignant reminder of the degree to which so many qualified Blacks have been denied opportunity solely on the basis of race.
So the campaign has been a series of tests we have already taken. The only question left is whether America can pass the final exam on November 4. There is no scoring, no almost coming close and celebrating “progress.” It’s 2008 and this is Pass or Fail. We generally know what a passing grade means, symbolically and concretely in terms of reshuffling the racial deck. What we are not prepared for is a failing grade. The depths to which most of Black America will take the failure to elect a Black President as a personal affront, because we will know that much of the opposition to Senator Obama is rooted in race, and the same expressions of hate, mistrust and doubt, directed toward him, are transferable to us. I suspect that a failing grade on this exam will result in a racial “Cold War” that will affect every aspect of our relations with white Americans for centuries or until the nation can make amends. Election Day is no longer about electing a President. November 4 is about healing a nation.
- Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NSnewstv.com