One day, while waiting for his mother to finish work at the American Embassy in Jakarta, Barack Obama was flipping through a stack of Life magazines when he came across a picture of a man in dark glasses and a raincoat, walking alone. Looking more closely, Obama noticed that the man’s skin had a “ghostly hue,” as if, he wrote in his memoir, “blood had been drawn from the flesh.” The man had gotten a chemical treatment in hopes of lightening his complexion.
Obama describes himself as seized by a novel fear—his stomach knotting, his face growing hot. He was already conscious of himself as black, but this was the first time he realized that his race could be seen as a bad thing, that maybe “something was wrong with me.” He was 9 years old—lucky, he wrote, to have had so many years “free from self-doubt,” and still certain of the love of his white mother. (Though the man’s subtlety is hinted at in the boy’s emotional caution: “By the time my mother came to take me home, my face wore a smile and the magazines were back in their proper place.”)
For W. E. B. DuBois, both realizations—of his distinction and of its difference—came at once, “in the early days of rollicking boyhood,” when in a New England schoolhouse a white girl rejected a gift he had offered. “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness,” he wrote in these pages in 1897, “that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”
For white Americans, consciousness of race has tended to arrive without quite so much freight—as a discovery that there are distinctions, sure, but that white is the norm, the default mode for humanity. This may be changing. It was probably no coincidence that on the day Americans elected Obama president, our 4-year-old son looked up at my wife and asked, “Are we white?” (We are.)
In focusing our annual State of the Union issue on race, we didn’t want simply to celebrate the inauguration of America’s first black president; nor did we want to rain on a parade many of us feared we’d never see. But we did want to complicate things a little, since it seems to us that in America, no real conversation about race can be glib.
As Marc Ambinder shows in his article “Race Over?,” the Obama campaign did not so much transcend race as manage to talk around it. The campaign’s success at neutralizing white suspicion while capitalizing on black solidarity underscores the magnitude of its political accomplishment, and the treacherousness, and potential richness, of the social terrain ahead.
For as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “American Girl,” blacks accustomed to leaders who style themselves as America’s conscience, rather than its decision makers—and also to viewing their countrymen through “the DuBoisian veil, the dark filter”—will now watch a black first family at the very center of American life. And now whites, as Hua Hsu writes in “The End of White America?,” are confronted with their own impending minority status, with its attendant, explicit race consciousness and grievance-driven identity politics. How will they respond over time to a black president?
Given the state of the union more generally, it’s a lot to ask of Barack Obama to also fulfill our hopes, and assuage our fears, about race. The good news is that if he governs well, the rest will surely follow. Beyond the competence of his transition, his careful study of his racial identity offers further reason for optimism. Far more than the white man who preceded him in office—who not only passed through childhood but reached the Oval Office evidently free from self-doubt—the new American president has deep reason to hate government’s abuse, and to respect its potential.