Baratunde Thurston: Obama has tapped into hope – and triggered a backlash of fear

The Democrat's mere candidacy has exacerbated America's racial divide

Friday 31 October 2008 01:00

We are almost there. The mood here in the USA is tense. I am excited for this election, but with only a few days left, I am even more excited for it to be over. We Obama supporters are exhilarated yet exhausted, confident but cautious. Mostly we cannot stand the suspense.

This campaign has been going on for nearly two years, and "change" has already come to America. In that time, I have changed jobs, moved homes and upgraded my marital status. For the country, all the complicated debt financing our consumer shopping spree seems to have come due at once, and Britney Spears, well, no one even cares what she's up to anymore.

Since January, I have been consumed: cable news, YouTube, blogs, door-to-door voter contact, conventions, debates, conference calls, rallies, interviews, meetings, music videos and more. Like our dependence on fossil fuels, this pace is unsustainable. I have lost Facebook friends over this election. Facebook friends! Enough!

At least I get to play a direct role in the process through donations and actual voting. I can only imagine what people overseas must feel like having no say whatsoever in a process that could mean the difference between receiving shipments of humanitarian aid and shipments of bombs.

We are almost there.

The polling is clear. Obama has a steady national lead. More importantly, he is leading in the handful of states whose electoral votes actually matter including four states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. John McCain had hoped to make California competitive. Instead he finds himself ahead by only two points in his home state of Arizona, forced to commit resources and to start running deceptive automated phone calls in a desperate attempt to prevent an embarrassing loss.

Assuming he wins, what can we expect from Barack Obama. Can he unite the country as he's promised? He will have his work cut out. The divisions in America run deep racially and politically, but there can and will be progress, if not total resolution.

A friend and fellow comedian who produces a video series called "This Week In Blackness" spoke with me about the oft-repeated concept of a "post-racial" America. The notion is that we will have won the War On Racism by electing Obama and once and for all healed America's racial divide. Claims of employment discrimination, systematic imprisonment and economic segregation could be met with, "But you have a black president." The country could finally move on to more pressing matters, like selecting the next flavour of Coca Cola.

This simple resolution will not happen. In fact, Obama's mere candidacy (and the reaction of his opponents to it) have exacerbated that racial divide in small but poignant ways. Obama has tapped into hope, but he has also triggered a backlash of fear from the more ignorant realms of our society.

News organisations have scrambled to display their understanding of blackness but often showcase massive ignorance instead. Fox News refers to Michelle as Obama's "baby mama.". CNN tries to summarise all of Black America in a two-part series almost exclusively highlighting pain, struggle and failures. Most outlets fail to understand that Obama is not here to represent "blackness" to begin with but rather "Americanness."

Many of us have seen the ugliness flow forth from Republican rallies. Looking like images ripped from history books, crowds that seem more like mobs scream "terrorist" or "traitor" or "kill him". All that's missing are the police, fire hoses, attack dogs and bell bottoms. Post-rally interviews turn up more foolishness: Obama is a "monkey"; Obama is a "Muslim"; Obama will "let the blacks take over".

Of course, we have heard of the plots by extremist white supremacist groups to assassinate Obama.

Yet the ignorance of the media, the vocal minority at some rallies and the plots of extremists do not define the entire country.

We will know from the exit polling data in a few days, but it appears that Americans think they are more racist than they actually are. Despite much hype, the so-called Bradley Effect, in which white voters lie to pollsters about their willingness to vote for black candidates, has not emerged, while something more interesting has.

When asked if they would vote for a black presidential candidate, approximately 95 per cent of white Americans said yes. When asked if they thought their neighbours would, only 75 per cent said yes. It's the equivalent of the nation collectively saying, "Oh, I'm not racist, but they are."

We lack faith in one another, and restoration of that faith is something that Barack Obama is ideally positioned to do. His temperament and his biography speak loudly to black children and rural white factory workers alike in a common language that few others can. There is hope that, although he cannot successfully resolve the race question with his mere election, Barack Obama may be just the president to move the conversation further in the right direction.

Should he be elected, another difficult and unenviable job for Obama will be to unite the increasingly polarised left and right political wings.

This election has seen a hardening of lines. Both sides are massively afraid of victory by the other. Sarah Palin has terrified the Left. Conservatives quake at the notion of a federal government controlled by Democrats. How do you come together with people who think you're a secret communist or people you fear will sabotage the courts with religious extremists?

More than any other candidate in many decades, Obama would be the president most likely to lead both factions. He has garnered support from the most left-leaning environmentalists to the most conservative elected officials. He speaks in a language of rights and responsibilities. When faced with challenges, he appeals to our shared hopes rather than our divided fears.

In addition to being exceptionally well-produced – I think he should campaign for an Oscar – his 30-minute television special on Wednesday night gave us a preview of the type of mature dialogue he would be willing have with the nation. By example, he refuted the most extreme of his critics, displaying a family man in touch with the concerns and aspirations of average citizens.

So we have come a long way both historically and in this election. We are so close. The question isn't so much whether Barack Obama can close the deal. It is, can America? I believe we can. Next Tuesday, we'll find out.

The writer is a New York-based editor at 'The Onion' and co-founder of the black political blog Jack and Jill Politics

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments