I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the early 60's. A white kid, transplanted from a small Wisconsin dairy farm to 6800 south. In my neighborhood, South Shore, I could walk to the Museum of Science and Industry, play in Jackson Park and learn about racism.
In Wisconsin we were hardly well off, but when I took the "EL" from 63rd and Stony Island or the "IC" from 71st and Jeffery downtown I went through neighborhoods that for me, defined poverty. I really didn't understand it, I knew black kids, their dads had jobs and worked hard, like mine, but there was no equality.
White kids weren't supposed to like black kids and they weren't supposed to like us, that was the way it was. I never really knew why. We were supposed to chase each other and fight. So we did.
In 1967 we moved back to the farm, and I thought the Chicago chapter of my life was closed forever so I never looked back, until Barack Obama was elected President. Now, forty some years later, my life in South Shore has come flooding back. Michelle Obama probably grew up near my apartment and my school Saint Philip Neri, where the nuns ruled with a heavy hand and no hint of racial bias, where we were all equal in their eyes.
Yes, I was introduced to racism, to injustice and fear; how absurd it all was and now,
Barack Obama has brought it all back to me. He has motivated millions of people, not because he is black, or in spite of it, but because our lives mattered to him and he could talk to average people never hinting that race made a difference. That was the way I thought it should have been when I was a kid, no racism, just kids goofing off and talking about football, rock music and those nuns who disciplined us with no hint of racial bias.
I was no better than those black kids I knew in Chicago, but no worse. My skin gave me privileges they didn't have. At the time I didn't understand why and I was wrong to ignore it. I knew about the protests, the marches and I remember the tension of a hot summer night when Stokely Carmichael came to Chicago. Change was coming, it was only a matter of time.
We are all by birth, entitled to certain rights and liberties. It has nothing to do with race, money, social status or country of origin. Food, education, health care, shelter, security, those are for everyone. Money might entitle us to bigger houses and cars, but the rest should be there for everyone.
Watching the celebration in Grant Park on election night, the significance of Barack Obama was very clear. He and Michelle and their daughters give us all a chance to accept fairness and equality. Watching that celebration, his speech, I saw no racial seperation, only people hoping for a much needed change, the very thing I could not grasp or articulate as a kid all those years ago.
In Grant Park black and white cried together, the same picture that occurred all over the world. Whether this new President will move us towards a fair economy, universal health care, safe food, clean water and air, peace and respect from the rest of the world all depends on us, he has told us as much.
Working for change against entrenched party politics and corporate power is not easy. As we have seen in past administrations, it is much easier to go with the flow, to cozy up to the money and power. A Brazilian farmer once told me "It's not the nature of governments to spontaneously bring about change," so, if we want that much needed change, *we* need to make it happen. President Obama will be as good a president as *we* force him be.
While his current transition team and initial cabinet picks make one think we have a new Clinton Administration without a President Clinton, we cannot let political history repeat itself. We have the opportunity to influence our government at a critical point in history, we the people, not the pundits, not the political hacks, not the Clinton holdovers.
We need to go beyond the small minded and arrogant talk of mandates. No election gives someone, or any political party, a mandate. Certainly, 52% of the popular vote should not give one carte blanche, it is hardly a fortune in "political capital".
An election is the beginning of a contract, voters have an employee who works with them as a partner for the common good of everyone, regardless of race, age, sex or income. We set priorities, they enact policy to support us.
As a kid, I was right to be confused by racism when I was confronted with it. I thought people were people no matter what they looked like, but the society of the day told me I was mistaken. It took the election of someone for whom race was irrelevant. It took the common celebration of those who looked beyond race to make it clear that indeed, we can confront and address our common problems, as long as we recognize we are all equal. As long as we recognize we hold the power of our government. Yes, we can, because we must.