Much as been made, of late, of Martin Luther King's having said, in early 1968, that he thought the U.S. might well have a black president in the next forty years. It's been 41, of course: not bad.
But I don't think America has changed as much as that prediction, if it was social analysis and not prophesy, would suggest. It is only because of a couple of quite extraordinary factors that we now have an African-American in the White House.
The first of these factors is Barack Obama himself.
In terms of being born and bred in African-American culture, Barack Obama is not like King himself, nor like Jesse Jackson, nor like John Lewis. Obama is exceptional in his background, having been raised by his white mother and grandparents, having had, as his black parent, a father who was neither present nor African-American. That upbringing, plus his exposure to the best of American elite educational institutions, give Obama an understanding of, and ability to communicate with, the mainstream white culture that is exceptional among those whom American society identifies (in its ancient, racist way) as black.
If any of these very rare factors were not present in this man, it seems doubtful he'd have been elected president this year.
The other major extraordinary factor is that Obama was running to replace an unprecedentedly destructive and despised administration.
When before has a president ever had approval ratings below 1/3 continually over three years?
When before have we had a president committing and admitting to what are clearly high crimes, right before our eyes?
When before have more than 3/4 of the American people said that the country was heading in the wrong direction?
Even a "maverick," running for the nomination of the party that gave us the terrible Bushite presidency, and running in the general election saddled with his embrace of the despised president, had to fight an uphill battle.
Obama understood that these were not normal times. Indeed, it appears that he made his move to jump to the head of the line for the Democratic nomination precisely because he understood both that these extraordinary times called out for someone of his vision and his gifts, and because he understood that the extraordinary nature of the times might drive Americans to make an extraordinary choice.
King's prognistication proved "prescient," but by luck, or at least by virtue of the kind of rare conjunction of events and people that are not indices of the normal flow of social forces.
Consider the make-up of the Senate. While the number of women in the Senate has climbed into double digits, Obama was, until his swearing in as president, the ONLY black Senator. If there have been ANY black Senators between Obama in this decade, and Edward Brooke from Massachusetts several decades ago, it escapes my memory.
If America does not even elect African-Americans to the Senate, it was not really in the cards that one would be elected to the presidency.
Of course, it happened. And blessed be the day. But it is not a reliable yardstick of a general picture.
Still, if Obama turns out to be the great president I expect that he will be --one that would warrant a spot on Mt. Rushmore, if there were a vacancy on the site-- henceforth there will be far fewer barriers to the political rise of more normal political figures running in more normal times.