A guest post from Stacey Walker
As a black man watching the 2008 presidential campaign, I knew the significance of what then-Senator Obama was doing. He was threading a very fine needle. In order to win, he had to convince a white political establishment that he had the chops to do the job, and that his Ivy League education wasn’t their worst fears of affirmative action realized, but he in fact earned his spot at Columbia and Harvard. He also had to convince the American people that his election would bring about the hope and change they felt starved of for eight long years during the George W. Bush Administration.
But perhaps his most difficult dance was the one with African Americans; he had captured their hearts and represented their greatest triumph since their forced relocation to this continent. He had to speak truth to power, avenging America’s sins against his people. He had to be authentic and he knew this, but he had to be careful not to scare the white people who were thinking about voting for him, but who harbored a deep suspicion that an Obama presidency might mean the end of white society and privilege.
He assuaged all of these concerns with a coolness reminiscent of a young John F. Kennedy who himself had to assure the masses that a Catholic could lead the free world. Obama beat back the birthers and those who claimed he was a secret Muslim and other manufactured scandals, and he bested his political opponents one by one until he stood alone as the sole victor. He couldn’t just run for president. He had to rise to every occasion and he had to meet astronomically high expectations because good was not enough for a black man who had the audacity to believe he could be president. In more ways than one, he was in a different race than his opponent.
During his first campaign, I heard many of his detractors often try to explain the racism and bigotry directed at candidate Obama as being rooted in objective criticism. I would grit my teeth and wince on the inside. What I wanted to tell them was that they were ignorant or narrow-minded, perhaps both. I knew that at the core of their feelings was the revulsion of a black man becoming the most powerful person on the planet. Somehow the idea of that much power being invested in a black body was off-putting and concerning to them. I knew that is how they really felt and they knew it too, but I could never breach that raw truth. If I were to do so, I would be accused of playing the race card and there’s no effective rebuttal for that charge. That retort was their trump card.
The dance Barack Obama had to do to become our president is a dance that is familiar to millions of African Americans across this country. It’s the dance we do when we feel the need to calibrate our blackness in public so we don’t make others uncomfortable; or how we must be patient with white America as they reconcile black professionalism on their own time; or how we must be twice as good just to get noticed; or how people believe we can tolerate more pain – physical and emotional – thus making our pain less worthy of empathy; when we know we’re qualified for that job or promotion but must combat the powerful and entrenched forces of institutional and structural racism.
I knew what he was doing and I watched in amazement as he pulled it off and shook the entire world with his historic victory. As a black man, I saw myself in Barack Obama; I related to his struggle. I see myself in the long pauses he takes to find the perfect words when articulating a thought. I see myself in his awkward yet semi-rhythmic attempts at dancing. I see myself in his hair and in his coffee-with-cream-colored skin.
I do not see myself in Hillary Clinton, but that’s okay. I know millions of women and girls around the world do and that is important. If she becomes our next president, they will see themselves reflected in the most powerful person on the planet and that can be life-changing.
Hillary Clinton is fighting parallel battles that Barack Obama fought in his two campaigns for president. It is not surprising. Both are minorities seeking power and as Frederick Douglass pointed out, power concedes nothing without a struggle. Up until recently, the power of the presidency has been the domain of white men. Barack Obama demonstrated that the structural integrity of this invisible wall of exclusion was weakening and Hillary Clinton threatens to blow it up once and for all. This is not a changing of the guard. This is a shift in paradigm.
During an interview with Humans of New York, Hillary talked about witnessing Barack Obama practicing his signature naturalness and coolness. She concludes that that sort of swagger may not be in the cards for her right now, because there are no models of American women as president and everyone has an opinion on how it ought to look for a woman candidate to give a barnburner speech. Barack Obama was easier for the American psyche; he was more palatable because we already had a construct for a man’s presidential disposition, we just didn’t have one for a black man.
As if we’ve learned nothing, we’ve returned to the question we were asking ourselves eight years ago: does a minority – in this case a woman – really have what it takes to lead us forward? While the most qualified person to ever seek the office lays out one cogent policy plan after another, some in the media decide to focus on her coughing during a speech or on how many times she flashes a smile during a forum or the tone of her voice, all while downplaying the consistent demonstration of ineptitude and wildly unpredictable nature of her opponent, to say nothing of his sordid morality. This absurdity of coverage is the great failure of news media in our lifetime.
It will not be easy for some readers to view this presidential contest through a gendered and race-based perspective, but it is important for everyone to try. Most thinking people understand that the literal idea of America is at stake in this election, but what often gets left out of the discussion or at least downplayed is how the most important election of our lifetime is also highlighting America’s challenge with seeing women and minorities as equal to everyone else.
Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person to ever run for the job, but because she is a woman, she’s having to seriously compete against a man who may be the most unqualified person ever to run for the job. This presidential race is only a contest because we still have a long way to go on gender and racial equality in this country.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass proclaimed. Electing Hillary Rodham Clinton as our next president is our struggle. Her presidency thereafter will beget the progress we need. She will make history and like her predecessor, she will signal hope and possibility for millions where the was none before. She best represents the idea of America and is also our best hope at saving it.
by Stacey Walker
Photo by Lawrence Jackson, via WhiteHouse.gov, collective commons