Waking Up in “Post-Racial” America

by Latoya Peterson

The night Barack Obama won the election, I was pissed off about losing my wallet.

Having accepted a last minute invite to an election night party down in Dupont Circle, I hastily threw hat, umbrella, wallet, gloves, and Ipod into a large bag, dressed in layers, and headed out into the evening drizzle to hang with friends as the ballots were counted. My homegirl Spiff and I entered the scene, bypassing a frustrated Republican looking for a red celebration and a guy playing both the guitar and a harmonica, trying to rhyme words in his improvised song with Obama, McCain and Palin.

The room was electric, supercharged by the palpable excitement in the air at the possibility of an Obama win. Though there were two different drink specials offered for party goers, four out of five drinks were of the “Blue Victory” variety. Unfortunately, so many people and so much energy, combined with so many azure colored concoctions would have eventually spelled disaster for my winter white coat. I crammed it into my bag and kept partying, until the open bar closed and I realized I was out of money. And metro fare home. And an ID with which to buy more drinks.

I checked the screen and saw that John McCain had an electoral college lead over Obama. Open bar closed early, the free food had run out, so we decided to head down to Kramer’s to grab some food and drink, and perhaps the next part of the election cycle on CNN. Luckily for me, some old friends were on duty, so discounted drinks and apps were on the menu.

We sat in the bar, sipping on Obama-tinis, hanging with my friend Abby who brought maps of the United States with her. She also held blue and red colored pencils, so she could color in the correct states in real time. While Abby is the most cynical person I know, she seemed strangely upbeat. She was unshakeable in her faith that Obama would win – her reasoning was that all other alternatives were too grim. We ordered another round.

The night wore on, the electoral college count started creeping toward Obama, and more friends dropped by to drink to with us. Abby was still shading in the electoral college votes. Little snatches of excited conversation rippled through the bar, debating ideas and policy changes. Then, suddenly, Obama pulled ahead. 270 was close, then in reach, then surpassed.

The whole bar broke out in an uproar, screaming and shouting at the television. I looked over at Abby, surprised to note that tears were streaming down her face. Her eyes refused to move from the screen, but she was still clutching the colored pencils.

“We did it?” she asked in disbelief.

“Yeah, I guess we did,” I replied, equally shocked.

For a few moments, we all just watched the screen, waiting for someone to come and take it back. To say that the projections were off or something. I can’t speak for anyone else in the bar that night, but I know my shock was genuine. I had never thought Obama would lose – the other offerings were just too grim to consider. But, somehow, it had never entered my mind that he would win, either. I personally was expecting another Supreme Court battle. I figured we’d have a President somewhere around December, give or take vote challenges and other shenanigans.

But Obama won.

When we got over the shock, popped some champagne, and settled into listen to McCain’s concession speech.

After that, we headed home. Weaving through the happy hornblowers downtown, we crept back into the suburbs around one. I texted my boss and told her I was pre-emptively calling in drunk. I turned off talk radio because it was bothering me, listening to the pundits shift to talking about all the problems Obama had to face when he was literally thirty minutes into the President Elect role. I came home, listened halfway to Obama’s speech, and fell into bed.

The next day I woke up feeling like shit.

On a day when the world was celebrating, I felt fairly wretched. Some of it was easy to explain away. Part of me was still sick, and running around in the rain, heading to parties, drinking, and screaming my lungs out killed my voice and left me with a slight hangover.

But there was more to that feeling than just physical ailments.

In a way, the day after Election Day felt like New Year’s Day. After all, all the signs were there – got dressed up, went out to a party where it’s two parts anticipation to one part action, had a lot of drinks, popped champagne at midnight, kissed the boyfriend and fell asleep in my makeup.

But more so than that, New Year’s Day always symbolizes reflection to me. It’s a day I normally take for myself, thinking, journaling, doing yoga, having a chill brunch with friends – and figuring out where the hell to go from here.

The Obama New Year was no different. I peeled myself out of bed and headed uptown to grab some Japanese food. Sipping on some miso to soothe my throat, I wondered why my mood was so muted when everyone else was so happy.

I realized then I was just drained.

The primary season had been brutal and a lot of former friends and supposed allies were no more, having said, done, or justified hurtful things as in keeping with the course of politics. Moderating this blog was a hell of a challenge as well, trying to keep the blog from being consumed with political coverage when the election was dominating the airwaves, and trying to moderate threads with so much hate and vitriol was being spewed from all corners. All told, there were a lot of long time commenters I banned from this space, a lot of blogs I don’t frequent anymore, and a lot of people who emailed in to complain about whatever way they thought we failed them politically.

More than that, it was kind of a strange moment to have talked about race for the last two years, and to suddenly have the MSM discover the topic like it was brand new. It was just jarring to see the people they found to opine on the real meaning of race seconds after the election was announced, and how quickly the post-racial mantle was assumed by members of the press.

But it wasn’t just the press. I received phone calls, texts, and emails from my more conservative leaning black friends, excitedly indicating that an Obama presidency meant “no more excuses” – here it was, definitive proof that blacks could do anything we set our minds to, so it was now time to drop all other discussions of other factors.

And I got some other calls and messages as well.

My best friend emailed me telling me she was thinking about quitting her church. Apparently, the ideological rift between Obama and McCain supporters had grown so much, she was no longer comfortable there. For her, this is a major decision – the place she mentioned has been her church home for almost five years. While the pastors gave many sermons denouncing partisanship and asking people to look towards God, the atmosphere in the church was such that this message was not heeded.

My girl Erica González also dropped me an email. Recently, when I was in NYC, she took me out to one of her favorite spots in Spanish Harlem to watch the debates. We hadn’t had a chance to catch up since then, so I was glad to hear from her. But apparently, this heaviness was weighing on her as well:

The day before the election

I was on the No. 5 express train when a black man, frail and hunched over, cheeks sunken, began singing that heart-wrenching Sam Cooke melody, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

That brought images from the film “Malcolm X” to mind. Towards the end, a somber Malcolm, played by Denzel Washington, begins his death march, gliding towards what will be his assassination, as Cooke’s voice belts out “I was born by the river….”

My eyes began to tear for another reason.

“A Change is Gonna Come” was one of the songs that my family used to listen to off an eight-track of Cooke’s greatest hits. We would also look forward to the track player jumping to “We’re having a party” and lifting us out of that heavy ballad.

So there was a very personal sentiment that this man’s singing touched. There was also a political one. He was singing 24 hours before people would begin flocking to the polls and ultimately elect Barack Obama, a black man, president of the United States.

Yet there was more to this as the man singing made his way through the train car, receiving coins along the way.

Obama’s victory, I thought to myself, would be huge. But here, another black man, homeless and probably isolated, was before me to remind me of all that waited to be overcome.

A day after that, I got an email from reader Taylor, who wrote:

Something interesting happened to me today… an old co-worker (white, female, mid 40′s who lives in rural northwest minnesota) txt’d me a joke about hallmark coming out with an obama ornament for christmas this year… i’m sure you can complete the punchline yourselves.

anyway, i txt’d her back telling her i thought it was a sick, fucked-up joke to make – i’m still riding high on his win, and up until then had been avoiding any conservative views. she replied and said she was sorry, she didn’t mean to offend… i explained that i didn’t think any joke a white person would tell regarding lynching & black people (using the n- word, at that) could ever NOT offend.

and she said “hey, i voted for him!” which rings so close to “hey, i have black friends!”

i’m afraid this is not the last time i’ll hear that used to justify racist jokes in the next 4 years.

Taylor continued:

Another comment she made was that obama was going to “do great things and bring change for us”… very ironic and sad!

Ironic and sad indeed.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read opinion and analysis that just leaves me cold.

We did not wake up in a new America, though some of us may feel that way. We’ve been the same country we have always been, and the reports now releasing about hate crimes during the election should remind us that while Obama has a decisive win, there is still a very vocal and unhappy minority. I also find it interesting that folks think there will be progress without cost. As if after every civil rights (and now, arguably, post-civil rights) victory all the opposition just melted away, and that people who were avowed segregationists instantly changed their minds and opened their hearts.

But we all know that did not happen.

And while Obama’s victory holds a lot of promise and hope and speculation, Barack Obama cannot fix America’s history with race and bias. He already has enough ahead of him with undoing some of the damage of the last eight years in the first two. I don’t envy the scrutiny he will be under, with the world in crisis in so many ways and no easy solutions in sight. He’s focusing on that.

The main work in ending racism lies with us. It lies in acknowledging that problems exist, having honest conversations about race, looking toward solutions, and challenging ourselves and each other on our own inherent biases. This is going to be a messy, ugly process. And small breakthroughs are what fuels us to keep going. Person by person, bit by bit, drop by drop, inch by inch, we are actively moving toward a better future. This is slow going. Anything worth doing takes time and effort, and occassionally we suffer setbacks. But it is important that we keep moving in the right direction.

So what does Barack Obama mean for race in America?

No one knows. It’s entirely too early to tell.

But a shift has occurred.

And it will be entirely up to us to influence where that shift heads.

Personally, I feel optimistic about our chances. I feel like America is ready for this, even if some people are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. I feel like the death of the GOP is a good thing, so it can reinvent itself and take a hard look at its tactics of alienation. I like the emergence of new coalitions in politics, and renewed engagement, and hopefully all this signals a return to thoughtful discourse.

But, ultimately, who knows?

Maybe I’m just happy because I got my wallet back.

(Special thanks to reader Brian, who prompted me to write this piece. And thanks to Taylor and Erica, who allowed me to repost their thoughts.)