Yes, he is. The first one, and that's an important historical milestone for the United States. And it's normal and more than appropriate for people to recognize that achievement. Certainly the fact that the United States voted an African-American in as our new President has been an impressive fact in countries around the world.
However, there is a conservative meme that already seems to be firmly in place about what that means. McCain himself gave a version of it in his concession speech:
But we both recognize that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. ... America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of [a century ago]. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. [my emphasis]
To Christianist/segregationist ears, this can easily be processed as: "There's no discrimination going on any more, and Obama's election proves it. So the blacks/Latinos/Indians/whoever should just shut up and git over it."
I heard a conservative African-American named Horace Cooper from a group called Project 21 on C-Span this morning pushing an only slightly more urbane version of that position.
Project 21 is an initiative of The National Center for Public Policy Research to promote the views of African-Americans whose entrepreneurial spirit, dedication to family and commitment to individual responsibility has not traditionally been echoed by the nation's civil rights establishment.
One more of the many groups, grouplets and front groups in the conservatives' private ideological infrastructure, in other words.
But it's clearly not true. Racism is still a very real factor in American life, both institutional racism as well as the personal, bad-manners kind of racism to which McCain referred in his concession speech with that strange little story about Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington. It's much more than a distant "memory" that still has "the power to wound", as McCain put it.
And this election brought before us as dramatically as ever that while a clear majority of Americans were willing to select a Democratic Presidential candidate who is African-American, there are still many Americans for whom racism is a virulent as it was in 1955. It's fine to say that we as a country have come a long way. But not if it means we fail to recognize that progress and retrogression can both take place aat the same time. The anti-gay-marriage proposition that California votess passed this week is an example of that.
And Obama's election didn't make the Republican Party any less segregationist-minded than it already was before 2008. Watch for the rightwingers to use the notion of Obama as "the black President" to delegitimize his administration.
Along these lines, I heard more than one meaning in Obama's comments in his victory speech, "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too."
He clearly said it in the context that he was promising to be responsive to those who didn't vote for it. But it also serves as a reminder that he was elected to be President of the United States, not President of the Democrats or "only" the African-American President.
Bob Somerby takes up this issue in his Daily Howler post of 11/07/08 in the somewhat surprising context of discussing Paul Krugman's comment, "If the election of our first African-American president didn’t stir you, if it didn’t leave you teary-eyed and proud of your country, there’s something wrong with you".
Somerby takes on Krugman's comment on the topic of patriotic pride, which would be toxic for a politician in today's climate:
Should we be “proud of our country” for electing Obama? In most ways, he was the clearly superior candidate; why exactly should we be "proud" when voters make such a choice? Frankly, we think our standards have been dumbed way down when we clap ourselves on the back for such conduct.
Beyond that, we think we might to revisit the context in which this decision occurred.
Should we be proud of Tuesday’s outcome? In many ways, McCain was an utterly gruesome candidate. Are we supposed to be "proud" of the country whose groaning, store-bought, brain-dead elites worked so long, so hard, so dumbly to hide that matter from you? The same pundits who tell you about their surprise told you, for many years, that McCain was the world’s greatest known living human, although he plainly was not. How could anyone be "proud" of a country whose structures have conspired, for such a long time, to support these grisly elites in such gruesome, gong-show behavior? Guess what? Your political culture is a screaming disgrace. But so what? Even your smartest, most superlative columnist is saying that you should be proud of the country whose elites refuse to stop behaving that way. Whose elites agree not to tattle.
Guess what, kids? McCain was a horrible candidate nine years ago - your "elites" (pause for laugh) told you different. Sometimes they did so because of their dumbness; sometimes they did so through sometimes they did so through bleating obedience to their group’s pre-approved standard scripts. But sensible people should be ashamed that this charade got anywhere near this place. McCain was ahead in many polls in mid-September, when the financial world collapsed.
Somerby has a point. Our broken Establishment press hasn't just undergone some kind of miracle healing. It's still broken.
And the Republican Party is neither reformed nor inclined in the least to give up the demagogic appeals we heard for months this year. And those "Obama is a Muslim ..." type chain e-mails will still be circulating.
So while appreciating the historic significance of Barack's election, we should also not fall into the trap of making it an excuse to pretend that his election shows all our racial problems are solved.