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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The content of character

<re a-changin’.”
~ Bob Dylan

“I have a dream that my four little children will … not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

History, I am told, occurred Tuesday, November 4, 2008. The punditry on television screens, the opinion-shapers on editorial boards all across the nation claim that, as Dylan did in the 1960s, the fundamental nature of our nation has changed. We are witnessing a moment so paramount that it can shape the course of our nation’s, our world’s, future for years to come. As a citizen of the United States, I undoubtedly brim with pleasure when I see the results from Tuesday, a culmination of a long, hard-fought journey. As a Democrat from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I feel ecstatic that my political party gained extensively and swept to power. As the son of immigrants – a brown-skinned youth whose story can only occur in America – I view Senator Barack Obama’s election as inspirational. But as a student interested, as President Oden remarked in his address during New Students Week, in learning how to best live the rest of my life with the knowledge, clarity, and perspective, I pause before I whole-heartedly immerse myself in the crowd of my classmates, family, and friends who used 10:07 PM, November 4 as a reason to celebrate, commemorate, congratulate. I yearn to understand the motive that drives my peers and me to praise this great nation, to feel pride for her only now.

Does this confluence of emotion result from party ideology? Election 2008 signifies just the fourth time in the past eleven elections – the sixth in the past fifty years – during which a Democrat gained access to the keys at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For myself and many of my peers, this is our first election in which we could participate, an exciting election with a mixture of importance and urgency unseen since Watergate. The inept, out-going Republican leadership punctuates their legacy from the last eight years with a Democratic president-elect, a Democratic Congress, an unpopular war, an underwhelming economy, a culture of incompetence and shallowness, and questions as to the party’s vitality in the future. We can cheer loudly, proudly for this moment for these reasons because, to paraphrase the words of President William Jefferson Clinton from his first inaugural address, our democracy, in one night, became not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal.

Behind such a statement, however, lies a subtext. Behind many of the statements heard on campus, scrawled across newspapers nationwide, and plastered on the tickers of politically pornographic news channels like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, breathes a sometimes unintentional, disgusting subtext. This subtext writhes with the same racial tones that President-elect Obama’s campaign tried to dismiss throughout the campaign. Why do I hear in lounges, or see in Sayles my friends proclaim the scrolls of history have underwent revolutionary change? Does every Carleton student truly grasp the complexity, the intricacies of the geo-political system, or is the majority of the campus heartened by the fact that Barack Hussein Obama, the son of a Kenyan politician and a Kansan anthropologist, will become the first minority elected president of the United States?

For me, a student of color, I can understand and learn from my junior Senator’s rousing story. At the same time, I am slightly miffed at the implications from my fellow Carleton peers. The plethora of statuses on Facebook gush with respect to the amount of America has progressed, how the election catalysts a radical change in perception of the United States from abroad and in the presumed courses of action at home, or how people are finally proud to be Americans. The conventional wisdom revolves around an exaggerated deification of a man whose name was relatively unknown in his own hometown just five years ago. Critical crises face this nation, and, with an unproven executive at the helm, many seem to feel justified in our self-lauding, bold enough to proclaim that all will be saved in America. We elected a black president. I have heard and seen pontifications that the racial divisions of old are no more, fallen by the wayside and relegated to the past are the struggles of the 1960s – the ideological, cultural, global fault-lines of old will split no more.

But can we really conclude that? We did, indeed, elect an African-American president. We did, indeed, see Jesse Jackson shed tears – saturated with the blood and sweat spent from fights long ago – during President-elect Obama’s poignant acceptance speech. But it was Dr. King who said to judge him not by his skin color, but by his actions. Dr. King would not want us all to pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done if it turns out – and history provides us a wealth of evidence – that the new guy could not take the heat. How will the campus react when this experiment regarding this hypothesis fails? Historians debate, but the hypothesis that an unproven leader can tame a nation and bridge the chasms left by a predecessor arguably failed in 1960, 1976, 1980, 1992, and, definitely, in 2000. Simply put, Theodore Roosevelt once advised that one must speak softly and carry a big stick. Applicable to nations, we know not of the stick’s size, but we most definitely have made a raucous noise.

Yes, Barack Obama signifies progress for the nation, but I am still not impressed. The President-elect claims that change comes from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. In our race for racial egalitarianism, this nation seemed to forget that mantra. Minorities make up 30% of the cloth that wove this nation’s tapestry together (13% of the nation is African American), yet, with the passing of the 2008 Election, the number of African American senators in the United States Senate now equals the number of African American senators in the United States Senate in 2003 – zero. Even outside of politics, a struggle wears on in terms of the jobs for minorities. The National Football League requires teams to interview minority candidates, in order to diversify the league. Public schools in Harvey, Illinois, crumble as I tap letters into a computer worth more than a sixth of the income earned by someone on disability or welfare. In socio-economic terms, is that the realization of Dr. King’s dream? Aside from symbolism, what type of relief can students at Harvey’s public high school seek in President-elect Obama, who, himself, attended a boarding school? How are they to rise to the top? A common response to my questions will be that electing Barack Obama president marks the first step toward change. But if history provides as any indicator, if the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton serve as any reminder, that hope of tomorrow quickly fleets in inevitable power struggles, in action. After all, both men came to power with over 55 Democratic Senators, only to lose any leverage due to executive naiveté. We elected Barack Obama president, not God. The color of his skin should not impact our decision or assessment of his job performance or of his skills as a politician. As a student of color, I am offended by the contention that all is well, that morning in America has arrived, that we have turned the corner. Perhaps I am slightly irrational in my judgment. However, at the end of the day, I personally would rather not be viewed as someone who earned all he did despite his circumstances or impediments, but as someone who made it on his own merit. Applauding for the reason that America elected a black president, then, marginalizes the very gains that my Senator made in the primary elections and in the general election against two formidable opponents. I am sure Dr. King and President-elect Obama would appreciate a change. And it would be one of historic proportions.

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