Barack Obama Elected President | November 4, 2008 – The Double-Edged Sword of Iconism and Racism

Posted on November 5, 2008


History has been made.



What an incredible and virtually unreal joy to be a witness to this event. Whether one supported Obama or McCain in this historic election, it’s extremely difficult to argue the iconic nature of this event. And whether one is black or white, may we celebrate this as a victory for the American ideals that suggest that all men are created equal.

From Thomas Friedman:

The struggle for equal rights is far from over, but we start afresh now from a whole new baseline. Let every child and every citizen and every new immigrant know that from this day forward everything really is possible in America.

From Nicholas Kristof:

This is a victory not for one man or one party, but for opportunity itself.

From Thomas Barnett:

These United States are simply the greatest experiment on this planet. And membership is something worth celebrating.

From Roger Simon:

Obama’s victory does not signal a shift in ideology; it signals that America is weary of ideologies.

From President-Elect Barack Obama himself:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.


Though McCain conceded defeat graciously, there were a few statements that either fell short, or missed it completely.

The many millions of Americans referred to in McCain’s opening remarks did not “wrongly [believe] that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.” They legally lived that oppressive reality. Obama’s election is not mere inspiration. It’s inspiration grounded in the very tangible transformation of our nations guiding laws and principles.

Now, perhaps McCain wasn’t referring to the civil rights history of our nation. Perhaps he was simply referring to the millions of apathetic Americans whose cynicism has halted their involvement in the political process. The problem is that his next line was this:

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

While true on many levels, and while I don’t believe saying that statement was wrong, I was hoping for McCain to add (and emphasize) that this historic election has special significance for all Americans. For the ideas of this nation are not simply “African-American” ideas, nor should this victory be relegated to being merely a “Black” victory. It is a victory for all. While the oppressions in this country fell greatly to those of African (and other) descent, this victory not only furthers the freedoms of their liberties, but it also takes great strides in liberating others from their prejudices, bigotry, and racism. And that is a win for all.

Then he says this,

America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

A nice idea, but is it accurate? True, there may not be lynchings as there were in the past, however, bigotry of any kind is cruel and frightful (which easily leads to violent acts), and to suggest that we are a “world away” may be to turn a blind eye to the racism that still exists today. The most immediate “assassination plot” aside, the two campaigns saw many who “simply could not vote for a black man.” Countless other stories (most recently in Palo Alto) could also be referenced, and I know that in my community of friends and colleagues, racism and bigotry are surfaced easily by various eventful or vocal triggers in every day life.

Now, this is not to down the entire speech. I appreciated his comments “Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth,” and “These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.” His ownership of the mistakes of the campaign are humble, and his pledge of service to President-Elect Obama are inspiring and commendable. I still hold the highest respects for McCain and his honorable service to this country. He truly has done more for my freedoms than I have ever done, even for my own citizenship. So, I must say clearly that I am grateful, truly.

Regarding his political endeavors, however, this last comment seems to sum up a fundamental difference in how this country sees and ought to be seen:

I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into these comments, and perhaps I’m not a very good judge of intonation. But the call to “not despair,” and the sentiment that “nothing is inevitable here,” seems to call us to a concession of settling to make due with what we’ve got in the midst of what will not be achieved versus an Obama “yes we can” campaign that calls us to shine brighter the light of hope and a fervent belief in what has yet to be achieved. In leadership, vision is currency. And perhaps one of the reasons why an underdog like Obama made it thus far is because the value of his vision seemed to breath new life into a tattered nation, where as the value of McCain’s vision was to hold our breath just a little longer.


But now that we’re here, there are two sets of challenges that face Obama that have to do with iconism, “the formation of a figure, representation, or semblance; a delineation or description.” [1]

While Obama’s message may have been highly inspirational, he is going to have to live up to those words. The weight of words now gives way to the evidence of actions. And while inspiration is powerful, it is also fleeting and very temporal. It can get you to where you need to go, but it can never keep you on the same path without tangible results. Inspiration can easily slip into empty promises or even hypocrisy. It is the “be careful what you ask for” dilemma, and in Obama’s case, he (and we) got just what was asked for–a responsibility.

I recently heard this phrase, “the freight of being iconic.” It struck me as highly apropos for this historic moment, and I believe Tavis Smiley mention this same idea during his remarks tonight. It is that now that Obama has been elected the first African-American president, he, by default, is carrying the responsibility of representing well the rest of the African-Americans’ possibilities of attaining the same office. While non-PC (politically correct), a crude way of saying it is, “Don’t screw it up for the rest of us.” While being first is iconic, being first is also a daunting task that brings with it the rest of unseen history. This may not be of great concern for Obama, (especially after hearing his acceptance speech; a speech that was, like Obama, calm, cautious, humble, and clarion), but I can imagine that the freight still looms. Let us all strive together, strongly and cautiously ensuring that the cosmetic issues never become the foundational issues.

What a night. Truly, an amazing piece of history.