Last week I started to ruminate on remarks I will make tomorrow at a dinner with students. They asked me to speak about the upcoming elections. As I mentioned, I am looking past what I take to be a very likely Obama victory. My question is: what does an Obama presidency mean?
I am now thinking in a more Taoist manner. Passage 11 from the Tao Te Ching is in my head:
absence makes the cart work.
A storage jar fashioned out of clay:
absence makes the jar work.
Doors and windows cut in a house:
absence makes the house work.
Presence gives things their value,
but absence makes them work.
That last line says a lot. In relation to this presidential election, it would lead us to ask: what is absent? What is missing? Whatever is it that is lacking may be key to understanding how the election, and possibly an Obama presidency, might work.
One thing that is absent is the obstacle that race has been in American history. As I suggested before, at any other time in my lifetime, up to this point, if I had been asked if a black man would be elected President of the United States, I would have answered, "no." That was not the outcome I wanted, but it was the outcome that seemed to me inevitable, given the legacy of racism in American society. But now, rather suddenly, that obstacle has been removed. It is absent. Not completely, of course. I would never suggest that racism has wholly disappeared here. But it has been diminished to such an extent that it no longer bars a capable man from becoming president. It is effectively absent as an obstacle in this election.
Some may want to reject his idea. In my previous post, a commenter, "Taoist Voter," asks, among other questions: "What good is a black President if there a million black people in prison, and this President has no initiatives to help them?" The suggestion here is that Obama is sufficiently ensconced in the political establishment and status quo that he cannot be an agent of significant social change. He is simply more of the same. His race is not politically relevant because his politics will not yield genuine social transformation.
This strikes me as too pessimistic. I do not expect Obama to transform American society to the extent "Taoist Voter" might desire. Politics rarely works that way, especially American politics, which more often advances incrementally. In my more radical days I, too, would have scoffed at mere incrementalism. But the election of a black man for president is a significant step, however overdue, for the US. It is a generational change. Young people who have grown up in a more integrated and more multicultural society (compared to my own experience in the 1960s and 1970s), are not as easily swayed by racial stereotypes and fear-mongering. They listen to what Obama has to say, size up his character, place him in the broader political context of the moment (which works so powerfully against Republicans - thanks W!), and see in him a promise for the future. Race matters less to them then other qualities of mind and character. And that's an important change, perhaps one that has come about incrementally over the years, but now seemingly one that has reached a critical moment, a tipping point.
To repeat, an Obama presidency will not end, once and for all, racism in the US. There will be critics ready to pounce on any preceived mistake he makes as evidence of the folly of electing a black man to the highest office in the land. But his presence in the oval office will symbolize new national possibilities. And that presence will have been facilitated by an absence of the race obstacle this time.