Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 will be a historic day on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama will become the nation’s first black president. Tomorrow, he’ll make his way along Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capital Hill to the White House – following the same route that saw Thomas Jefferson’s own inaugural procession – followed by caravans of African slaves bound for market at 7th Street, British Regulars on their way to burn the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife on the way to Ford’s Theater, Ku Klux Klan parades, and Civil Rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King to name but a few of the historic events that have occurred along this stretch of road – and at the end of that journey he will raise his right hand and take the Oath of Office as President of the United States of America.
And in that moment, this country will change forever.
Most of us, at least I hope we are a majority, think this is great thing.
There is, of course, a subdued (and not so subdued) minority who seem to feel this event marks the beginning of the End of Days, biblical or otherwise, or at least the end of America as we know it. They’ll watch the inauguration tomorrow in fear and trepidation all the while bemoaning the demise of America. They won’t see tomorrow as a great day, a turning point, a benchmark on the road to realization of the American dream for all Americans, or another step towards realization of the full potential of the Constitution - but rather they see tomorrow as an ignoble day of shame.
Many of these folks are the same people who spoke of freedom and liberty a decade ago when the Berlin Wall came down. Many waxed rhapsodically patriotic about righting the injustices of oppression and inequality – when it came to East Germans. They’ll turn on the inauguration tomorrow, but they’ll keep the sound muted and they’ll talk about Kennedy and Reagan, now those were great presidents.
Some of these folks are out and out racists and make no bones about it, and the mere thought of a black man looking out from the windows of the Oval Office fills them with horror and fear and disgust. They’ll sit home tomorrow, drinking cheap beer and counting their guns. They’ll polish their swastikas and SS Death’s Head pins and tell themselves that they’re the only real Americans left. Most of them are too damned cowardly to do much more than talk. But some, well, they’ll be a problem for the FBI and the Secret Service and they’re the reason why the President Elect will ride the length of Pennsylvania Avenue in a custom-made bulletproof monstrosity nicknamed “The Beast.” You couldn’t pay them to watch the inauguration tomorrow.
Some of these folks tell themselves that they are not racist. Well maybe just a little, but they don’t talk about it, they don’t go to rallies or anything. They don’t actually use the N-word - not in polite company anyway. Hell, they believe a black man could be president – just not yet, maybe some day far in the future when blacks are maybe better qualified to be national leaders – but, you know, that doesn’t have anything to do with race. It’s an education thing. This is the worst kind of racism of all. This is the racism of the 1950’s, the Leave It To Beaver racism, out of sight and out of mind and everybody in their place. This is the type of racism that can look upon a Columbia University and Harvard Law School graduate and sees only an uneducated member of the inner city stereotype. This the type of racism that says most slaves were happy and better off as slaves and that minorities today should be grateful for what freedom they have and not seek beyond it. Tomorrow, they won’t watch the inauguration, they’ll critique it. They’ll provide a critical and derisive breakdown of everything from the new President’s elitist smile to the new First Lady’s horrible posture and hairdo, to the disrespectful way the Obama children are dressed. They’ll sigh and tell their friends how it’s just too damned bad, but race has nothing to do with it. Nothing.
Some of these folks are secret racists. They hide their racism even from themselves. These are the folks who deny their racism loudly to anyone who will listen – and then go so far as to deny that racism even exists anymore in America. They say they’d even vote for a black man – just not this black man. But, it’s not the color of his skin, no, it’s the fact that he somehow stole the election, or he’s a Muslim, or his pastor is a black supremacist, or he’s going to take away our guns, or that he’s a liberal, or his ears are too big, or because his wife is a bitch who hates America, or the fact that he wasn’t born in America at all, or maybe it’s just because he’s a product of the corrupt Chicago Political Machine. Tomorrow, these folks will watch the inauguration and keep interrupting to explain how the new administration will fail within the first six months, then all the damned liberals will be sorry. They won’t mention race, well, other than to say how isn’t it a shame that the administration is pandering to African Americans instead of focusing on the economy or the war or whatever the issue of the day is.
And then there are the people like me, who despite all my efforts and high ideals, began this post by noting that tomorrow a black man will become President of the United States. In this, I guess I’m no different than any of the thousands of others who wrote or spoke on this very subject today. This inauguration is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that it marks the end of an eight year long nightmare, but the first thing any of us note is that a black man is about to become president.
And that’s a form of racism too.
It’s subtle, but no less true for being so.
Two hundred years ago, blacks walked Pennsylvania Avenue as slaves, chattel, property. A hundred years ago blacks travelled Pennsylvania Avenue as second class citizens. Tomorrow, a black man will ride along that storied road as President of the United States.
America has changed and it’s been a long and often painful trip.
And this event is only a single stop in that journey.
Barack Obama is the first, he won’t be the last. Someday, a citizen will ride along Pennsylvania Avenue to became President, and on that day, a person’s skin color will not be noteworthy. And it’s on that day, that racism will truly be dead in this country.
Tomorrow we take another step in that direction.