In the two years since Sen. Barack Obama announced his bid for the presidency, black Americans have been on an emotional roller coaster. Only recently have many of us allowed ourselves to envision what once seemed impossible: A U.S. president who is a person of color. With Obama leading in national pre-election polls, the suspense has become nearly unbearable.
Even deeper at the center of our current anxiety are at least two questions that carry all the complexity of black Americans' history in this country: What will it mean personally to us if he wins? And how will it affect the future of African Americans?
Win or lose, how will we cope?
Since more than 37 million Americans are of African descent, there cannot possibly be a blanket, one-stop-shopping prescription for how to cope on the day after Nov. 4, and in the days after that. But there is a saving grace: Whether or not Obama wins the White House, his historic campaign presents a unique opportunity for a fresh commitment from all Americans, in particular from black Americans, to look at our nation, and our personal role in civic life, through a new lens.
On the Day After—should he win the presidency—there will be a sense of wonderment, excitement, exhaustion and disbelief. And in the days after that, once the afterglow has subsided, we will confront a world that is somehow different … but also not so different. This is when each individual will begin assessing his or her role: Will the old way of doing things still work? Or has Barack Obama provided each of us an opportunity to remake our own self-image?
Despite some claims to the contrary, Obama has never forgotten that he is African American. He has said he intends to create economic and educational opportunities that benefit all Americans who have been struggling during the past eight years of the federal government's neglectful domestic funding and policies; and that blacks, and other ethnic minorities, especially, have been "hit hardest" by the recent economic turmoil. And, as he told Michael Cottman of BlackAmericaWeb.com, he intends to make the issue of fathers participating in their families a going concern. "I am going to stay on them about that," he said, referring to black men.
Those comments fall under what has come to be known as the tired and supposedly controversial "black personal responsibility debate." The more productive tack for all black Americans—as we contemplate a new way of looking at ourselves and our opportunities in the wake of Obama's historic candidacy—is to consider the hard facts of our lives that require our immediate attention:
1. Homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 29.
2. Fewer than two out of six black children are born into two-parent households.
3. The high school dropout rate for blacks in many urban areas exceeds 50 percent.
4. More than 900,000 African Americans are incarcerated. Although blacks make up only 12 percent of the population, they represent 40 to 45 percent of the prison population in the United States.
Those statistics describe conditions that, at bottom, are symptomatic of a collective malaise that has handicapped millions of blacks for most of their time in America. It is derived from a toxic combination of the emotional and psychological scars of our past (notably, slavery and Jim Crow segregation), and the postmodern presence of institutional factors that challenge all Americans (poor education and economic opportunities, too much violence and permissiveness in pop culture).
Barack Obama cannot possibly instantly provide the antidote for our collective social ills. Yet here are some key steps we can all take, starting Nov. 5 and continuing thereafter, to begin lessening the pain we've all felt for so long:
1. Following Obama's example, we must participate in our local, state and federal government. In order to win, blacks must be in the game. That means voting—and not just when African Americans are candidates!
2. Activism and constructive protest must define our battles for better jobs, schools, health care and a fair criminal justice system.
3. Structural racism needs to be eliminated in all of our institutions. We must support community groups and civil rights organizations that carry on this mission.
4. As parents and families, we must devote ourselves to raising healthy, productive children who believe they can be in charge. Leaders learn to lead by positive example.
5. As black Americans continue to struggle against the odds, we must assume personal responsibility to become victors and avoid falling into a state of passive victimhood: If Obama becomes president, blacks can expect that the larger community will have heightened expectations of us, in terms of personal conduct and overall achievement. Raising our own expectations of ourselves will be the key to building on the opening presented by Obama's historic campaign.
Finally, Sen. Obama's campaign reflects many challenges that lay ahead for black America. More important, however, his candidacy also reflects our inherent humanity—and our hard-earned place at the top of our nation's leadership structure. On Nov. 5 and beyond, it will be more important than ever that we no longer think of ourselves as so-called minorities who have to ask for a place at the table. We must work to have our children achieve their best: Turn off the TV and read to your children. Take your child or a friend or relative's child to the public library, rather than the mall. Visit your children's teachers and get involved in their schools. These are small steps, and they are free. By engaging in them, little by little, we can raise our collective game. By embodying Obama's careful balance of confidence, intelligence, courage and compassion—a forceful combination that is only hinted at in his "Yes, We Can!" mantra—we will move beyond a perpetual state of hopefulness. We will continue to win and to achieve.
Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, is co-author with Bill Cosby of Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors, and co-author, with Amy Alexander, of Lay My Burden Down, Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans. He is professor of psychiatry, Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School.
Amy Alexander is the Alfred A. Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.