Wednesday, November 05, 2008I've been trying to figure out how to write about the election all day. After considering a number of different ways of discussing Obama's victory analytically, I finally decided that a personal approach would be best (Don't worry, I'll write the analytical stuff later).
I had pretty ridiculous ideas growing up. I thought that the South was just a geographic expression with a unique history - a history that didn't really matter anymore. I believed the myth that the Civil Rights revolution had been a success, and those bad old days of racial strife were gone. Then I got involved in politics and realized how very wrong I was.
I grew up in the Deep South at a time when the political divide between black and white was growing. Moderate and conservative Southern whites were transferring their allegiance to the Republican Party, transforming the once-dominant Democratic Party into a minority based on black voters and a rump of white liberals (like yours truly). It was hard to experience, not just for the political defeats and policy disasters it led to, but because it seemed like the state was drifting towards a very dangerous, socially segregated place. Of course in most senses it had always been that way, and generally race relations were oh-so-slowly improving in the 1980's and 1990's - but it didn't feel that way at the time. It was hard to be hopeful about the future.
When I finally left the South and realized that there were parts of the country not so corrupted by racial politics and demagoguery, I decided never to return. I had become an embittered Southern exile. Imagine my joy when the South seemed to follow me, as George Bush and his allies worked to impose the worst features of Southern life on the rest of the country. For someone as politicized as I am, it's been excruciating to watch a country I love in the hands of monsters, while my fellow citizens hoot encouragements. I feared after 2004 that the whole country was turning into Dixie, that the South would finally win the Civil War and that I would have to pack my bags again.
Which brings me to Barack Obama. No, he didn't win the majority of white votes, and he did quite poorly among whites in the South. I expected nothing else. His success in Virginia and North Carolina and close margin in Georgia had more to do with heavy black turnout and the demographic changes in those states than any sudden return of the Dixiecrats to their ancestral home. But for me the point is that Obama didn't do much worse than any other Democrat would have done among white voters. Despite all the fear, there was no Bradley effect. People just didn't care enough about race to let it determine their vote. At least not many people did. It's almost as if my false beliefs of 20 years ago are suddenly true.
It's a rare thing to watch your world change, to experience it lurching in a positive direction. For the first time I can say that my country has matured sufficiently to have elected a black man President of the United States. Yes he is superlatively talented and exceptionally lucky, but that it was possible it all means that my stubborn naivete about this place is not entirely misplaced. A small part of me is now willing to entertain the possibility that in a few more generations the South will be distinguished from the rest of the country by something other than its poisonous race relations - that slavery and segregation will one day be just bad memories. And a bigger part of me is willing to believe that the arc of the world does tend towards justice.
For one day at least, the good guys won, and America seems more like the place of my youthful imaginings. Hoo-ray.