What Do We Do When We Win?

Reflections on the election victory.

By Jeff Chang Nov 25, 2008

There’s freedom for all, you’ve heard the call…
—Skull Snaps

AND THE CELEBRATIONS BEGAN. From the streets of downtown Oakland to Harlem’s 1-2-5, from the million gathered in Grant Park to the flash march down to the White House, the music played, and the people danced. Somewhere, the members of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team—troops brought home from Iraq only to be mobilized in case of an election-day national emergency—eased back in their boots and relaxed.

In Accra, Ghana, my cousin—a recent graduate of Punahou School, Barack Obama’s high school in Hawai’i, where his personal racial dramas began to play out—watched as American expatriates screamed and sobbed and hugged, Ghanaian boys waved an American flag, and women fell to the ground to pray. As Obama stepped to the podium in Chicago, the sun rose in the African sky. It was a new day.

Four decades ago, Richard Nixon and George C. Wallace won 57 percent of the popular vote around politics rooted in a racist backlash against civil rights and an abiding disgust for youth. The shape of that election, indeed the crushed hope of that tumultuous year, have dominated American politics ever since. Even Democratic president Bill Clinton largely governed in concession to white backlash during his two terms. He established a commission to discuss race issues while he eviscerated welfare—using tired but apparently timeless stereotypes of “irresponsible” woman of color to garner broad support—unleashed corporate deregulation and allowed the unchecked expansion of the prison-industrial complex. Schisms over race and generation have defined 40 years of politics in this country.

So when Senator Barack Obama began his campaign in Springfield, Illinois in the icy chill of February 2007 at the location where Abraham Lincoln had given his “A House Divided” speech, it was hard to imagine this biracial late-Boomer from Hawai’i could mount anything more than an insurgent campaign. But after 18- to 24-year-olds handed Obama the first Democratic primary victory in Iowa and Blacks united behind his candidacy, most long-time political insiders could only gasp at what came next. The old ocean suddenly produced a roaring swell. Obama got on his board.

Immediately, the Democratic primaries brought to a boil the so-called “identity politics” of the post-civil rights era. The Clinton campaign raised the spectre of Black liberation with decontextualized videos of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. (Obama’s race speech deserves entire books, and they are already being written.) Second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro made brief appearances in the Oppression Olympics. White male lefties like Todd Gitlin, who spent much of the last two decades decrying the rise of the racial justice movement, watched from the sidelines with not a little awe. The Obama-Clinton battle turned into seminars on race and gender, the campus culture wars of the ’80s distilled into a referendum on the future of party politics.

In the end, Obama prevailed, thanks to the rising coalition of urbanites, progressives, young people, and Blacks—the foundation of a new majority. But he could not do so until Hillary Clinton’s campaign exacted its pound of flesh—the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Democrats whose racial animus the shameless Clinton advisor Mark Penn ceaselessly poked at with a big stick.

To chip away at Obama’s lead, Republicans reverted to the party of 1968, taking Penn’s playbook to its logical conclusion—relinking Fear of A Black Planet to Fear of A Red (the old “Better Dead Than Red,” that is) one. Of course, it was ridiculous nostalgia—a battle for a world that either never had been or was already gone. But at the Republican National Convention, Rudy Giuliani, the reborn anti-cosmopolitanist, and Sarah Palin, the anti-cosmonaut born-again, hyped a newly discovered breed of subhuman: the community organizer. Former Weather Underground member William Ayers, whose research and work on race and education in the inner city has been hailed by progressives and conservatives alike, soon became a household name.

The racist dog whistles blew all the way until November 4, and not without effect. Arab Americans and Muslim Americans were silenced by the loud racist whisper campaigns, until Colin Powell stepped up to ask the right question: “So what if Obama was Muslim?” Authorities foiled at least a half-dozen white supremacist schemes to kill Obama. And when McCain began his concession speech that night by celebrating Obama’s history-making election as the first Black president, his supporters actually booed.

So much for that “post-racial America” thing. Matt Bai of the New York Times and others were eager to declare Obama and his generation of Black politicians—including Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, Newark mayor Cory Booker and Alabama Congressman Artur Davis—the avatars of “The End of Black Politics.” But what is clear is that the “end of Black politics” seems much further away than the end of “minority” politics. Because, ready or not, the new majority is here.

This past summer, as Obama was bodysurfing at Sandy Beach in Hawai’i, ABC pundit Cokie Roberts said his vacation to that “foreign” place made him seem “a little bit more exotic than he perhaps would want to come across.” But days later, new census projections were released showing that the U.S. might become majority-minority by 2042, a full eight years earlier than previously expected. The Brookings Institution followed by noting that those under 30 will reach that point in 2028, in just two decades.

But the new majority didn’t wait. They showed up on November 4. While over-65-year-olds went for McCain, and Baby Boomers split right down the middle (for them, the culture wars may never end) under-45s overwhelmingly voted for Obama. In fact, young people, Latinos, Asian Americans and gays voted for Obama by 2-1 margins. Most stunning: almost every registered Black voter turned out to vote. The new majority once imagined by the post-civil rights era’s cultural vanguards—the multiculturalism and hip-hop movements—resoundingly entered the world stage.

Their success marks a return to the grassroots, where the local work of the past two decades created the theoretical and organizational infrastructure to win. Yes, Obama kicked McCain’s and Palin’s asses with the principles and tools of community organizing, aided by the most advanced technology available. Imagine the best-funded, most gadget-friendly organizing campaign in the history of the world. That, in a nutshell, was Obama’s “50-state strategy.”

The fruit of that strategy—349 electoral votes, 64 million votes and historic turnout rates—is resounding proof that the country is hardly “center-right,” as Republicans like to claim, but may in fact be “progressive-left.” It’s hard to think of a greater repudiation of the racist politics of Nixon-Wallace and the reactionary psychographics of Rove-Penn.

One symbol of the new majority is a newly elected young State Representative in South Carolina named Anton Gunn.

Gunn was a community organizer for South Carolina Fair Share before he became the director of Obama’s South Carolina campaign. He made Obama’s stunning primary victory against Hillary Clinton possible. Then he returned to his district to run for the State House; he had lost in 2006 by fewer than 300 votes.

His district, like the state, had been historically “red.” But in the past five years, the formerly all-white suburbs outside of Columbia have turned 50 percent Black, home to a new Black middle class who make up 37 percent of voters there. Gunn’s victory confirms his belief that his generation of post-civil rights politicians of color—for him, the Slick Rick/Whodini/Biz Markie concert at the Democratic Convention in Denver ran a close second to Obama’s nomination speech—will reframe the coming decades of politics.

What do we do when we win? It’s a question that community organizers, people of color, the hip-hop generation, those of us so used to being the underdog have not been able to ask ourselves much in the past four decades. In fact, it’s a question we often refuse to ask. Often we can deconstruct our victories faster than we claim them. Both are necessary. And now the question is suddenly the main one on the table. It undergirds the other questions we want to answer: How do we bring the troops home, reverse economic injustice, dismantle corporate consolidation, ensure diversity of media representation, embrace immigration, establish national healthcare, expand educational opportunity, colorize the green economy, abolish prisons and begin rehabilitating our people and our country?

What do we do when we win? We roll up our sleeves for more. With Obama’s election, we have four years to begin to undo the policies of the last 40, not to mention the structure of the last 400. It’s a new day, and there’s a lot of work to do.