I didn’t cry. That may sound blasphemous to my black identity, but “it,” perhaps, just hasn’t hit me yet. Don’t get me wrong. That was definitely me at the Blue Leprechaun on victory night, downing glasses of champagne, shaking it like a Polaroid picture, hugging people I didn’t know — celebrating the first black president in the history of the United States.

But celebration became complicated right around Wednesday morning when I encountered a New York Times headline that read “Racial barrier falls in decisive victory.” Many television networks and commentators have begun using the term “post-racial,” as if to imply that electing a person of color to the presidency has been the sole quest of civil rights organizations that have sought racial justice through protest and other forms of direct action for decades.

In the past few days, prominent African Americans who organized in the Civil Rights Movement have been given many platforms to recant the gruesome details of state-sponsored (police) and vigilante-initiated (Ku Klux Klan) violent racism in their lives.

Briskly, the interviewer dashes forward to 2008 and asks them how it felt to have Obama elected. With all this access to some of the most productive civil rights activists of our time, one would think a point of inquiry would be: What is on the contemporary racial justice agenda?

Instead, this then-and-now presentation of racism in America obscures a fact that Obama made clear in his victory speech when he declared that, “This victory alone is not the change we seek — it is only the chance for us to make that change.”

Interestingly enough, John McCain’s concession speech perceived Obama’s victory differently. He argued that America is “a world away” from the bigotry that existed a century ago. Further, he noted that Barack’s presidency was a testament to that distance.

This was hard for me to grasp, considering that in late 2006, I protested alongside thousands of people who were lamenting the umpteenth police-related death of a black man, Sean Bell, who had been gunned down by New York police; last year I had attended marches with thousands of people assembling to free the “Jena 6,” a group of black high school students in Louisiana who had been given unfair criminal sentences when they responded to racism at their school; also in late 2007, I stood alongside hundreds of people to advocate on behalf of Megan Williams, a 20 year old who had been brutally raped and victimized by a family of whites in West Virginia.

Alas, the tearful joy experienced by my family members and friends is something I can’t bring myself to until the change is actually effected. This is perhaps because I fear that my celebration will be misread as a celebration of change that hasn’t fully arrived.

Great harm can be done to the progress we’ve made over decades if we read the election of the first black president, in and of itself, as finally bidding farewell to the affirmative action conversation or policy discourses on black poverty, police brutality and disproportionate violence against black women.

This analysis isn’t meant to cast doubt on the historic importance of having a black male president. I write this as someone who opted out of New Year’s festivities this year to trudge around New Hampshire knocking on doors in minus-7 degree weather for Obama.

I merely plead for us to recognize that progress isn’t just seen in the realm of elected representation. All of the undergraduate activism I was enlisted in that focused on issues of education disparity, police brutality at campus parties and African American college retention never sought to elect a black president. The presidency is 1 percent of 100 things, as the saying goes, and these issues remain despite this week’s joyous outcome.

The biggest lesson I have learned from this election is that I live in a country where those who are committed to bringing about racial justice outnumber those who are not. And this makes me proud to be both African and American considering that there is much work to be done.

These days, I have deferred to a pragmatic kind of celebration, the kind that is preoccupied with a line of Obama’s e-mail blast on victory night, “I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.”

Rose Afriyie is a Public Policy graduate student.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.