Shortly after leaving the voting booth, 70-year-old community activist Donald E. Robinson had a thought: "Why do I have to be listed as African-American? Why can't I just be American?"
The answer used to be simple: because a race-obsessed society made the decision for him. But after Barack Obama's mind-bending presidential victory, there are rumblings of change in the nature of black identity and the path to economic equality for black Americans.
Before Tuesday, black identity and community were largely rooted in the shared experience of the struggle — real or perceived — against a hostile white majority. Even as late as, many blacks still harbored deep doubts about whether whites would vote for Obama.
Obama's overwhelming triumph cast America in a different light. There was no sign of the "Bradley Effect," when whites mislead pollsters about their intent to vote for black candidates. Nationwide, Obama collected 44 percent of the white vote, more than John Kerry, Al Gore or even Bill Clinton, exit polls show.
In Ohio, domain of the fabled working-class white swing voter, where journalists unearthed multitudes of racist quotes during the campaign, 46 percent of white voters backed Obama's bid to become the first black president, more than the three previous Democratic candidates.
Remember "we're votin'for the ni@@er"?
Obama did not define himself as a black candidate. So Robinson now feels free to define himself as something more than a black community activist.
"We've taken that next step. It's moving toward what we call universal brotherhood and sisterhood," Robinson said after voting for Obama in his northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood. "We shouldn't be split and have all these divisions. That's why I say it's a bright day."
L. Douglas Wilder, the first black person to be elected governor of Virginia, shares Robinson's sense of American identity. "But I can tell you, when you say that, people take umbrage," Wilder said. "They believe that you are dissing them, putting blacks down. I don't have to tell you what I am, you can look at me and see that I'm not white. So what difference does it make?"
It took Obama's election, however, to make that idea real.
"It's immediately transformative," Wilder said. "It immediately changes the level of discussion. This thing is bigger than we thought it was. It's too big to get our arms around, and it grows exponentially each passing day. It sets us on a brand-new course."
It's honestly the most remarkable thing about the Obama phenomenon to me; the ability to have conversations about race, about race relations, about racial taboos with people of other races that simply weren't happening before.
To acknowledge the attitudes without being invested in the emotions. You know what I'm talkin' about, right?
Yet the past is a heavy burden to shed. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a former civil rights activist who was jailed during the protest marches of the 1960s, said that Obama's election does move America toward a "more perfect union." But when it comes to self-definition, he believes the current state of that union leaves him no choice."We don't come into this world defining ourselves," Clyburn said. "I was born into a world that had defined limits for me. I had to sit on the back of the bus, I couldn't attend the nearby school. My wife had to walk 2 1/2 miles to school, walk past the white school to get to the school for blacks. She didn't define that role for herself. That role was imposed upon us."
Certainly racism did not disappear after Obama's white votes were counted. No one is claiming that black culture and pride and community are no longer valuable. Many also dismiss the idea of a "post-racial" America as long as blacks and other minorities are still disproportionately afflicted by disparities in income, education, health, incarceration and single parenthood.
Ah yes. Still a long way to go in terms of economic and not just social justice.
So the prospect of a black population that is more of "America" than "black America" has profound implications — especially for the civil rights establishment that continues to battle for blacks who remain at the bottom. ...
"My grandmother told me when I was 5, 'Boy, if they ask you what you are, just tell them that you're an American," said Benjamin Jealous, the 35-year-old president of the NAACP. "The reality is that our heritage, our culture, our families, our community have been extremely important to us. It's always been our right, and in many ways what we fought for, to be seen simply as Americans."
Update: "Mutts like me"...
"Obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me," Obama said with a smile. "So whether we're going to be able to balance those two things, I think, is a pressing issue on the Obama household."
In his first postelection news conference, the man who will be president in just over two months described himself as a mutt as casually as he may have poked fun at his jump shot.
If he thought nothing of such a remark in his first news conference, doesn't that signal that over the next four years, the country is likely to hear more about race from the White House – and from the perspective of a black man – than it ever has before?
It's not necessarily that he will make a crusade about the issue once he takes office. There was little sign of that in his election campaign, in which he ran on issues like the economy with a broad appeal to all Americans.
But it does underscore that the president-elect clearly does not see race as a subject best sidestepped or discussed in hushed tones. To Obama, race in all its complications has long been a defining part of his life, and he is comfortable talking about it.
And many of the rest of us will get there, too.