The Obama Gap

Nov. 4, 2008 — I’m hanging out in an enormous public room at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. A large screen TV has one election coverage team chattering and there is an even larger screen on which is projected another channel’s chatterers. We flip from channel to channel (Fox News eliciting boos and laughs), while the screens flip between the talking heads and brightly colored maps of the U.S.A. The states are slowly filling, red and blue and more blue.

Dozens of students, black and white and Latino and Asian, lounge on couches or chat with friends. They type on laptops and click and text. Many have one ear bud from an iPod in one ear; the other ear is “open” for the outside world. This is their multi-media, multi-racial environment, constant lights and noises, constant interaction among various groups, as familiar to them as various waters to fish. At 11 p.m. EST, one of the talking heads sonorously announces Barack Obama has won the election. The room erupts in gentle and heartfelt whoops and hollers. There is a subtle euphoria in the air, but one notes also the overriding coolness that hallmarks this generation. They give their hearts, but gingerly and gently. To be honest, there was a lot more noise and wild celebration when the Phillies won the World Series the week before than when Obama gained the White House.

Nov. 5, 2008 — I am standing in front of my anthropology class. At the end of the 75 minutes, we take some time to reflect on the previous day’s election. Students are mostly quietly elated and excited about Obama; a smattering grudgingly let go of their McCain-Palin connection. All agree McCain’s concession speech was admirable, even honorable. Obama’s election fills many with hope. Hope for a better economy. Hope for an end to the insanity in Iraq. Hope for an America of which we can be justly proud: not an empire that lies and tortures, but a nation united in making the world a place of peace and opportunity and freedom and justice for all.

But I think: Do they really get it? Do these young adults, born in 1988 or 1990, really appreciate the magnitude of this event? I tell them: “I was born in 1955, three months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. There’s no connection between the two events, except in my own mind. Just realize I was born into a country where segregation was legal, accepted and largely unquestioned. Those who began to challenge apartheid in the U.S.A. faced danger and death.” The kids look at me, curious and interested, but such a world is as foreign to them as descriptions of the Great Depression were to me when I was their age. “John Lewis wasn’t even recognized when he came on the screen last night,” I continue. “Who’s John Lewis?”

“I was born into a country where segregation was legal, accepted and largely unquestioned. Those who began to challenge apartheid in the U.S.A. faced danger and death.” The kids look at me, curious and interested, but such a world is as foreign to them as descriptions of the Great Depression were to me when I was their age.

1964 — I tell them the story of John Lewis. (See his autobiography “Walking With the Wind”.) He was a tiny little man, their age, when he joined the civil rights movement in 1960. By the time I was 9 years old, people like Lewis had radically changed the U.S.A. for the better. LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the country changed. Lewis and other college “kids” like Diane Nash, James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette withstood hatred and beatings, even deaths of their friends, and quietly, nonviolently, courageously changed people’s hearts and minds. My world, our world, would never be the same. As Martin Luther King’s frontline foot soldiers in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), those college-aged “kids” re-created America. Their achievements are chronicled in David Halberstam’s fascinating history, “The Children.”

Lewis has been a congressman for the past 22 years; I have been a Jesuit for over 30. The millenials’ world seems, culturally, light years from what mine was like when I was their age. In the 1960s and 1970s there was much tension between the races, and the O.J. verdict in 1995 revealed how much of a racial divide still existed in our country.

A Possible Future — Still, has something deep and seismic shifted with this election? Can we begin to “see” race and other social constructions in new and more edifying ways? I hope so. “Doonesbury” captures the mood and tone of this newer world. The day after the election, the strip shows soldiers in Iraq. A black soldier, Ray, shouts “Hoo-ah” when Obama’s elected. A white soldier chimes in. “What a great day. We did it!” Ray looks at him as the white soldier continues, “He’s half white you know.” Ray (Smiling? Chuckling? Tweaking or teasing his comrade?) replies, “You must be so proud.” The Jon Stewart-Colbertian ironic cool prevails. In another “Doonesbury” strip, Ray bristles at the assumption he must have voted for Obama. A white, female soldier calls him on the fact that he’d never vote for a “sailor.” (John McCain was a graduate of the Naval Academy.) Group identities and loyalties are ever-shifting social constructions for millenials, but Army still trumps Navy!

In a remarkably prescient final season of “The West Wing,” the tall, slim, cool Latino candidate (Jimmy Smits) ran against the older, white establishment candidate (Alan Alda), and the series depicted the Phillies as competing in the World Series. This October, my “Phightin’ Phils” won for only the second time in 126 years. I hope the day will come when we watch female and Latino and Asian candidates prevail in presidential races. Along with Colin Powell, we should recognize that a Muslim American child can dream that he or she will win the presidency. Which will come first, a second black president, a woman president, a Latino or Asian or Jewish president, or a third Phillies World Series championship? Prior to this year, I wouldn’t have held out much hope for any of the above. I have to confess, after last Tuesday’s election, anything seems possible now.