In fact, the experience of Catholics in the ‘60s was not altogether different from the experience of blacks today—successful and active, both socially and politically, but yet often viewed as outside the mainstream. “I don’t think Catholics in 1960 felt that they weren’t part of the country, but when Kennedy became president it reinforced and enlarged the sense that they could achieve the American dream,” said John Kenneth White, a professor of politics and presidential scholar at Catholic University.
In the same way that Kennedy’s election helped to reinforce Catholics’ belief that they had full access to the American dream, suggested White, Obama’s win validates the strides, big and small, made by African Americans in recent decades. “It’s been coming for a while,” he says.
There is a danger, however, in putting too much emphasis on evolving self-perceptions. It can too easily let larger society off the hook. “We may have a very touchy-feely feeling about the result of the elections, but the harder question is what impact it will have,” Walters says. “Some people want to interrogate black folks’ behavior in terms of Obama’s election, but white people control the gateways, educational, economic, you name it. The extent that Obama has an impact on their behavior has a lot do to with the opportunities that are going to be open for blacks.”
There are no clear-cut markers that make a particular group officially part of the “mainstream.” The notion that white Catholics felt a more meaningful sense of inclusion in American politics and society after Kennedy’s election may not, in fact, be significant by any concrete measure. But social transformation is rarely clean and concrete. With dreams come “hope”—the most overused of Obama’s winning political mantras—and it’s sure to have even deeper resonance for black Americans on Jan. 20 than it did on Nov. 4.
“There’s this sense of a young president taking us in a new direction with fresh ideas and enlisting the American people in a common goal that is based on what is possible and not on the cynicism of the past, or the tired apathy of the past, or the sense that politics can do but so much,” says Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
It was under Kennedy that black people really began to feel that times were changing, and it’s because of Obama that they believe change has come. Perhaps that tie is the strongest, the straightest, the most meaningful of all.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.