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Our Stage, Our Speech, Our Time

For a generation of young black Americans, Obama has unveiled the deeper promises of American life.

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Yes, I did think this moment would happen. I believed that an aging, maturing democracy was capable of separating itself from race to evaluate the merits of an exemplary candidate. I believed that while the Clintons are formidable, my party would not resist the chance to capture lightning in a bottle. I believed from the first rumblings in Springfield, Ill. in February 2007, that the 2008 election is Barack Obama's time.

By now, most Americans are aware of the improbable historic accident of today, that Barack Obama's acceptance of the Democratic Party's nomination for president comes 45 years to the day after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The historic arc is stunning from any vantage point. But for black Americans, especially those in the post-civil rights generation, those who, like Obama, are beneficiaries of the struggle and inheritors of the dream, tonight is not merely a night to recognize how far we've come. It is a night very much about the arc forward from this moment.

I am not naïve enough to think that the election of Obama would mean the disappearance of racism or racial disparity. Higher African-American rates of chronic disease, of incarceration, of economic deprivation are attributable to generations of neglect—the choice of one candidate cannot be expected to cancel out these slow-burning fuses. In fact, it is quite possible that the work of public persuasion on matters of inequality could become even harder under an Obama presidency. It would be wrong, but very much like us as a nation, to convince ourselves that instruments like affirmative action would become outdated with a black man ensconced in the White House.

It is arguable that the tightening gap between Obama and McCain—a curious event given the insubstantial nature of John McCain's campaign and the country's hunger for new policy directions—is proof that race is still burdening Obama. And yes, there are pockets of Democratic-leaning America that resist this one Democrat a little too loudly.

So I am not a blind optimist. But it is significant that one of the things Obama will produce as he takes the stage to accept the Democratic Party's nomination is a novelty we have not seen as Americans: a generation of 18-29-year-old black men and women who feel that American politics, and the deeper promise of American life, is not closed to them. At black college commencements this year, there was a stirring passion when speakers uttered Obama, and "yes, you can." That passion will lead young black people to choose different paths over the tried and true route of focusing on the ways in which they are victims.

It matters that Obama the role model is not an athlete, because the athlete's talents are too hard to emulate. It matters that the gift of oratory is his signature. If being well-spoken becomes "cool," let us celebrate that progress. It makes all the difference that he honors his wife and venerates his children—a counterpoint to the promiscuity glamorized by too much of hip-hop culture.

Obama's upending of the Democratic establishment reveals a path to power that relies on grassroots organizing and the tools of 21st century technology. This is a good thing, a very good thing, for young black politicians who are trying to dismantle their own home-grown political machines. The best imitators of his strategy will be congressmen and congresswomen by the time Obama stands for a second term.

On issues like affirmative action, Obama offers the promise for direct and indirect action. I believe that he would be an eloquent opponent of race-blind admissions that would destroy diversity on our elite campuses. I hope that Obama, in his way, would do what Bill Clinton did in 1995: make a case that diversity is a necessary goal in a society that prizes the common good. I know, at a minimum, that the most vicious debates over quotas and entitlements arise in the most polarized and divided places. An Obama administration would make our ties to each other stronger, not weaker.

Historical trends suggest that in America, dramatic progress on one front begets dramatic progress in other sectors. It is not unreasonable to believe that a country energized by Obama would write a new social contract on health insurance and on the urgency of reducing poverty. A Democratic Party led by Obama would not be the same interest-group-dominated infrastructure that resists innovation in any number of areas.

But, however this campaign ends, whatever kind of country Obama could lead us to, it cannot leave the black community unchanged. It is certain that it will move more than a few black Americans to tears when Barack Obama takes the stage in Denver.