Not everything will change with the election of Obama, says Gautam Bhan who watched America celebrate the election of Barack Obama, but change it will. Race will not disappear, but it will never be the same again. Structural inclusion and inequality might not vanish tomorrow, but its pipes and planks will be made visible
I was out all night in Oakland, California, last night. One of the most ‘dangerous’ cities in the country, crime statistics say. Usually, that's always code for historic black neighbourhoods. This one is no different. Close to us are some of the districts and towns worst hit by the foreclosure crisis: one in three homes in parts of California are now owned by banks and not people. A generation of voters in this district remember what it was like not being able to vote because they were black. This is part of the America that has elected Obama.
My students are predominantly white. This is Berkeley, California, with some of the most progressive affirmative action (what in India we call reservation) policies, and so many, many of them are also Asian-American and Latino. There are still precious few African-American students at the college level, even at subsidised public universities. My students are mostly about 20. They have the freedom not to remember Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They use the word "past" rarely and look only in one direction. They are a generation long described as the apathetic children of technology. They are an America that has not easily inherited the arrogance that so easily slips in with power. This is another part of America that has elected Obama.
I saw the election results come in with community organisers, activists, people who work in everyday America. Their tears are tears I recognise from the defeat of Hindutva forces and India Shining. They are tears of relief and of belief. Tears that remind you that the slow, thankless, everyday work of social change has a horizon that is bigger than our individual lives. This is another part of America that has elected Obama.
There was a different America on the streets last night -- in ten years of going in and out of this country, I have never seen it like this. Cars were honking, people walking the streets openly crying and celebrating with strangers, spontaneous gatherings of people at every corner, public buses lit up, hope and joy in abundance. America doesn't make public displays of politics or affection -- it doesn't rush out on streets for much other than sports. It hasn't, in any case, for a very long time. Jesse Jackson, one of the most famous black Americans other than Martin Luther King, openly crying amidst millions in Grant Park in Chicago is a sight I won’t easily forget.
Not everything will change with Obama, but change it will. Race will not disappear, but it will never be the same again. Structural inclusion and inequality might not vanish tomorrow, but its pipes and planks will be made visible. America might not change all that angers much of the world about it, but it will not be able to be so naked in its power. To think of Obama is not to judge whether this hope will turn out to be real or false — the point is that it is hope at all. This hope, even if all its promises fail after a time, will have unintended consequences. Unintended consequences that, in stories of the everyday, are in the end what help people change their lives. Leaders come and go, but it is the unintended consequences of hope that leave lasting, if infinitesimal, change.
After eight years of Bush, Sept 11, a financial crisis, two divisive wars, deepening poverty, and horrid clashes on moral values, this landslide victory is the story of a scarred, hurt, and scared nation, shaken from its arrogance by a series of blows, trying to slowly look inside and heal itself. No matter what we think of America, its imperialism, its role in global successes and tragedies alike, that is a process all of us, in every country who have ever tried to think of change, can understand and support.
Gautam Bhan writes and works on urban systems, particularly on issues of equity, displacement/resettlement, and inequality within cities and their metaphors.This article originally appeared on Kafila, November 2008. http://kafila.org/2008/11/05/a-letter-from-america/