Barack Obama's nomination is a historical event, a watershed in the long saga of America's racial agony. We seem to have been waiting 150 years for this moment. So why isn't he sweeping all before him?
The place of blacks in American society, of course, is a narrative extending far back to Colonial days. The Civil War was fought over it. Revisionist historians occasionally try to point to economics factors or the inherent antagonisms between an agrarian and industrial society, but any memoir of the era will tell you that the war was fought over slavery. After the freeing of the slaves, America became a caste society, with "Negroes" confined to a distinctly limited role -- and suffering threats and violence if they tried to step out of line.
These Jim Crow barriers began breaking down in the 1960s and African-Americans have since won an ever-widening place in American society. There is still racism and great inequalities, but it is hard to argue that America is not an open society that is earnestly trying to open itself to blacks and other minorities.
Now comes Obama as an apotheosis of this vision -- an African-American bidding to lead the country. Yet there is more than just equal opportunity at stake. Obama is a child of mixed race, with a white mother and an African father. He is not just a tale of realized ambition but the actual melding of the races. It is hard not to think this is where he gets his messianic vision. "We are the change we have been waiting for," he says, obviously seeing himself as a physical embodiment of racial reconciliation.
So were does that leave us? Will the election of Obama mean that America's racial narrative has finally reached its conclusion? Or conversely, would his defeat mean that America has reverted to being a racist society?
I DON'T THINK this is the main issue in the election. On the contrary, the real question is whether race is the only important issue or whether there are other equally compelling narratives at this time.
Here are a few others that are competing for attention:
The Frontier. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner published a seminal essay in which he argued that having an open frontier on our westward boundary had been a decisive influence in shaping the American character. The frontier experience had leveled the class traditions from Europe, proffered opportunity to the common individual, and created a spirit of independence that had constantly posed a challenge to entrenched Eastern elites. Populist movements that had continually reinvigorated American politics had all arisen on the frontier.
It is no accident that this year the two Republican candidates come from thinly populated Western frontier states. Sarah Palin perfectly embodies this frontier spirit and both candidates are considered "mavericks," earning their spurs by taking on entrenched interests. Obama, on the other hand -- though he may not realize it -- draws his strongest support from Eastern colleges and established hierarchical institutions. He is the candidate of the non-profit sector, that odd hybrid of a capitalist society in which educated people try to claim money from profit-making institutions and "turn it to good use," usually following their own proclivities.