I did not believe that I would ever see a US presidential candidate who was not a white, male, heterosexual, Christian. Now we have Barack Obama as that candidate. If Hillary Clinton had taken the nomination, I would have been equally moved by the significance of this time.
There was a lump in my throat as I watched Obama accept the nomination at the DNC. This is truly an historic moment for the United States. It remains to be seen if the people will actually elect an African American president.
Obama balances on a tightrope in a high wind as he at once acknowledges race and racial inequality, and calms white fears about him be a racial radical. At the convention, efforts were made to let people get to know the Obamas. The repeated message of "just like you" (meaning "average white person") was clear. The most striking example (for me) was Michelle Obama's brother - Craig Robinson, head coach of the Oregon State basketball team - saying that as a child Michelle had memorized every episode of the Brady Bunch. While, I don't doubt the veracity, and don't mean to demean the show, The Brady Bunch?!
Perhaps I am overly sensitive to the "we're just like you" argument because I have spent decades listening to the arguments from the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movements of "we are just like you." In the civil rights community it goes, we work normal jobs, share financial struggles, have families and children, go to church ... "We are 'normal' folks." While, all that is true, we are NOT just like heterosexuals. Our life experiences are different, and challenged by both law and social sanctions.
The same is true for the Obamas. Because racism - like homophobia - is an institutionalized aspect of society in the United States, day to day existence faces challenges that are definitely outside the experience of "normal white folks." The Obamas (and I include Michelle in this) are anything but "average" or "normal." For me, they are not an example of the "American" dream of intergenerational advancement. They are an example of the courage, tenacity, and love of their families and support networks, and their own exceptional abilities and tenacity.
Each of them are exceptionally talented above the "norm." They had parents and family who nurtured and encouraged them. Somewhere along the line, they got "grit." They each triumphed in a society where the deck is stacked against them.
I felt punched with each stoking of the myth that the "American Dream" had been "real," and that somehow it had gotten lost, but we could reclaim it. The reality is that the "American Dream" has never been real, though one can hope (and work towards a day) it can be real. The adage that if you work hard that you will be rewarded with success, and that anybody can be what their highest aspirations, talent, and effort allow them to be, is simply not true. Further, it is not true even for white "Americans." U.S. society is not structured as a meritocracy. The boundaries of race, sex, and social class have always interlaced with the meritocratic ideal. Structurally, those differences have created high boundaries for the majority of the population.
Harking to the so-called reality of the "American Dream" actually reinforces the myth that it exists - or ever existed - in the U.S. Further, it paints exceptionalism as the 'norm." The veracity of the "you can be anything myth," is continuously supported by pointing at the exception and claiming it represents the rule. Virtually all of the speakers at the DNC did this over and over again.
Our social system is not structured for everybody (or even most people) to "win." A few people do navigate the obstacles (and get a bit of luck) and become touted examples of the truth of meritocracy. While my personal "success" is relatively modest in the scheme of things, people have attempted to paint me as proof-of-the-pudding of the myth.
The flip side of the "you can go as far as your talents and effort will take you" argument is that if you aren't successful "it is your own fault." Failure to advance socially and economically is a personal failure - a personal "character" flaw. This then gets extrapolated to entire populations - women, racial and ethnic minorities, the working and lower classes - as some sort of shared character flaw.
The meritocracy myth is central to keeping the structural and embedded social boundaries invisible, and reinforcing those very same inequalities. It makes me more than nervous that the Democrats, and the Obama campaign, continue to burnish the myth.
The use of "exception is the rule" applies to race (and sex, orientation, ability) as well as to social class. The selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate runs that risk. There are those (and I assume the majority of people) who will point to this exceptional event, and this exceptional man, and saying "See, racism doesn't exist in the United States" (at least not in any significant way). We have already heard this from the political right in a variety of forms.
Even before the Obama chose to run for president, the anti-affirmative action, anti-civil rights, welfare reform advocates have consistently argued that "race is not an issue." The selection of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate will certainly be used to bolster this argument.
What I am arguing here is that the Democratic party's broad scale use of "the exception is the rule" may dramatically undermine efforts to actually lessen inequality within the United States. This will become one (of the many) challenges that Barack Obama will face in the coming campaign - and in the presidency if he should be elected. While the selection of Barack Obama is a major advance in our society, it does not mark the end of personal, cultural, and structural racism of the United States.
To be clear, I support Barack Obama and will be voting for him in November. I am deeply impacted by the historic nature of having a mixed race person (labeled as African American) being a primary candidate for the presidency. This truly IS a special accomplishment for the nation.