If Barack Obama wins today, the world knows that he will be the first African-American president. In a country borne with the scourge of slavery, that struggled through a 100 years of nullification and interposition after the legal basis of slavery had been eliminated, the election of an African-American man to the presidency is an achievement for which no description is hyperbole: earthquake, transformational, monumental, whatever your pleasure.
The chasm Obama will have leapt is enormous. Not only has the US never had a person of color as president, with the one exception of John F. Kennedy, the presidents have all been protestant and mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin. That is, no woman, no person from southern Europe, no other non-protestant, has ever been President of the United States.
But, it is even much more than that -- no non-white person has governed any country that had a white majority. The converse, of course, is not true.
I have earlier written ("Obama's Millennials--83 Million Strong", June 30, 2008) that the human brain is wired to defend against "otherness" and then rationalize that reaction. The 78 million boomers grew up in an era of what might be called "Left-brain" equality -- granting/securing rights to minorities because it was logically and rationally the right thing to do. That, however, did not provide them the experience to reject skin color as "other" at the "Right-brain" emotional level.
When the Supreme Court (Brown v Board of Education) declared separation to be inherently unequal, they were focusing on segregation's negative impact on black children. White children, robbed of the opportunity of seeing black children as part of the natural order, and thus "self" and not "other", were also negatively impacted.
The human species experiences the world ~70% visually. Thus, overcoming right-brain reactions to the visual perception of different skin color as "other" required another generation in which the legal rights were established, and thus integration appeared to be 'the natural order' from childhood.
The McCain campaign was predicated on the strategy of making Obama "other", and thus suspicious. That is why they made the absurd claims of 'socialism', not because of Obama's economic program is even colorably socialism, but because 'socialism' is foreign. Focusing on Barack's middle name? During the 1930s the forbears of these filth spreaders said that Franklin Roosevelt was Jewish -- that his 'real' name was Rosenfeld. In those days Jews were a 'foreign element' with divided loyalties. Sound familiar?
Note that McCain never said to his rallies that Barack Obama is a good American, never uttered a whimper of respect for him. His only positive reference to Obama is when he, McCain, spoke to the NAACP during the election cycle. And then, he only referred to him as "my opponent", he never mentioned his name positively. Pathetic, pernicious...but, with McCain's attempt to exploit racism by seeding doubts and suspicions, predictable.
If Obama wins, it will be as if his victory were the combination of the right-brains of the millennials and the left-brains of enough of their parents.
Like Jackie Robinson, or even like Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming for Dinner", Barack Obama had to be nearly perfect, a real competitor on the one hand, but not angry or combative on the other.
The Swedish sociologist, Gunnar Myrdahl, noted at the beginning of the civil rights movement that, as bad as our race relations were, the United States was the only nation trying to deal directly with this problem. Blacks had watched immigrant group after immigrant group suffer a generation of discrimination, but then get integrated into society -- so long as their visual appearance did not trigger the "other" reaction. For people of color it has been a much longer and more difficult journey.
Although Obama's victory will not mark the end of that journey, it will catapult the US far ahead of its European brethren. This is not just of symbolic significance -- the 9/11 attacks arose not in the Middle East itself, but among people who had become radicalized by being marginalized and alienated from European societies. Islamic suburbs in France erupted in violent demonstrations, not dissimilar to the race riots in US cities in the 1960s.
If Obama wins today, the US will have shown the way. Let us hope that other societies, within themselves first, take heart from that example and start the long process of healing the wounds that come from de-humanizing those who appear different. Perhaps young people will think again before they allow old men convince them to commit suicide based upon the fear, or hatred, of those who appear to be "other".
Of course, the real "enemies" of mankind are what they have always been, the old four horsemen of the apocalypse: pestilence, disease, war and famine. Modern technologies enable us to solve all of them. Only people and their fears, fanned by cowards, stand in the way.
An Obama victory today will be the first re-assertion of moral authority for the United States in 8 years.
If Barack wins, it will not be the last.