“This is the first thing you need to understand about this country: nobody with this color skin will ever be president”
(My African American neighbor in Tallahassee (FL), his finger pointing to his own skin, as we were discussing the US democratic primary, in 1988 — I had lived in the US for one year, at that time)
I still cannot believe this is happening, and here I am, witnessing it. Maybe I am just getting old, but there is something truly extraordinary about this election, regardless of its final outcome. I cannot recall feeling so excited about an election. Nervous, shocked, angry, flabbergasted, desperate, many times. But this excited, never.
Given my political leanings, I cannot see myself supporting a candidate other than the Democratic one for a US presidential election, but I have to admit, my excitement this time is mostly due to something different, something that transcends politics.
I have lived long enough on this side of the ocean not only to understand the language, but more importantly to appreciate, at least in part, the significance of events such as the one that may be taking place tomorrow. And given the leadership role that the United States exerts (and will continue to exert for the foreseeable future), one can hardly underestimate the importance of this election for the rest of the world.
According to virtually every reputable poll (Zogby, Rasmussen, Gallup, Diageo and many others), Democratic candidate Barack Obama is leading his republican rival John McCain by something between five and ten percentage points, and appears to have a clear shot at a victory of historical proportion and significance.
Of course, polls are inherently inaccurate, and a last minute upset (unlikely as it appears and unprecedented as it would be, given the currently assessed margin between the two candidates) is possible. Yet, even in that case, unfortunate, heart-breaking and disappointing as I would personally regard the result, there would be more than one reason to feel optimistic about the future.
If only ten years ago someone had opined that one day soon, an African American democratic candidate would come this close to becoming US president, mounting a formidable challenge to a republican candidate (a conservative white male and former prisoner of war), most would have felt that that person was probably “out there”. It would take a generational change for something like that to happen, or maybe a revolution.
But generational changes tend to occur rather slowly, and “the problem with revolutions is that they are followed by restorations”, as an old high school teacher of mine used to say. And yet, here we are, about to witness (possibly) what only ten years ago would have seemed unthinkable.
Granted, maybe the uncertainty of the current economic times, an outgoing administration with one of the lowest approval ratings in history, an ever more unpopular war, all have surely helped pave the way for this development. Unquestionably, Barack Obama is one of the strongest, most credible presidential candidates of any race fielded by a US party over the past few decades.
Still, more fundamental a shift must have occurred, quietly, almost unnoticeably, in order to make this possible so soon, and unexpectedly. Does it mean that racism has been definitively overcome ? Of course not. If it only were that easy… But it seems difficult to imagine that this event, which will be on history books one hundred years from now, could have happened had there not been a substantial evolution in the way most of us think, over the past few decades. Could it be that maybe change sometimes does happen “one bit at a time”, and that there is something to be said for small steps ?