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No Longer Unimaginable

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By Eugene Robinson
Sunday, January 6, 2008

It was one of those moments that give you goose bumps -- the cheering crowd, the waving placards, the candidate and his family looking Kennedyesque on the occasion of a stunning victory. Barack Obama took the stage Thursday night in Des Moines and proclaimed his vindication of hope: "They said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high."

Yet there he was, the son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, a man with brown skin, kinky hair and utter command of what he called a "defining moment in history."

Those of us who have struggled to get our minds around the notion that a man who looks like Barack Obama could be the next president of the United States can no longer take easy refuge in the disappointments of history. Obama may not be elected president; he may not even get the Democratic nomination. But at this point, it's impossible to deny that what we are witnessing is something new.

The Iowa caucuses showed us the America we like to believe we live in, a country ready to embrace a man with brown skin as its leader. Is this really a land of such racial harmony and understanding? No, it's not. "We are one nation, we are one people, and our time for change has come," Obama said in his soaring victory speech. But sometimes we see things so differently that it's a wonder we agree on the blueness of the sky.

I spent Thursday evening doing television commentary on the caucus results. During a break, one of my fellow pundits -- Air America radio host Rachel Maddow, who happens to be white -- mused that white Iowans who harbored racist views might be unwilling to put them on display in the caucuses, where participants have to take a public stand. Voters in a secret-ballot primary would have no reason to be so inhibited, she speculated.

But earlier in the day, in an Internet discussion group that I host, a woman identifying herself as African American had written about her concern that the public nature of the Iowa process would sink Obama's chances. White voters, she feared, might be reluctant to reveal to their neighbors that they supported a black man with a Muslim-sounding name -- even if, the writer implied, they might have been willing to vote for him in a secret ballot.

So no, we're not always on the same page. But so what if the America we saw Thursday night is the America we'd like to imagine rather than the one we inhabit? Isn't an America that at least aspires to transcend racism better than one that doesn't?

On black-oriented radio shows Friday, the airwaves crackled with possibility. On his afternoon drive-time show, popular host Michael Baisden asked listeners if they supported Obama because of his race. Most callers said their support was conditioned on his positions on the issues, which shouldn't be surprising; African American voters have never hesitated to reject black candidates -- Republicans, for example -- whose views they do not share. But it was impossible to miss the pride in the callers' voices.

The change that Obama represents is largely generational, and this fact was evident throughout the Iowa campaign. Obama's army of young volunteers used the tools and skills of the Information Age to master the arcane caucus process. The Obama campaign offered a simple, consistent message. By contrast, Hillary Clinton's constantly shifting wardrobe of slogans and John Edwards's class-conscious rhetoric seemed dated.

You could see the contrast as the candidates spoke Thursday night. Clinton was flanked by her husband, Bill, and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Obama was surrounded by young faces. Anyone watching could take away but one message: That was then; this is now.

I've never thought the question of whether this country was "ready" for a black president or a female president made any sense. Breakthroughs always depend on the right person and the right moment, and "firsts" never happen -- by definition -- until they happen. All we can know at this point is that as far as Iowa Democrats are concerned, the time is now and the man is Obama. Voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina and other states may disagree.

Nor do I believe that a society magically reaches a point of colorblindness. Diversity is more of a journey than a destination, and we have to keep moving forward.

We do make progress, though. I don't know whether Obama is right that this is a "defining moment." But yes, I do believe a page has been turned.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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