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Race, Obama, and Virginia

This week we watched history.  It was more profound, more encouraging, and more uplifting than most of the history we’ve had to face the past few years.
 Barack Obama, a black man from Illinois, became the President of the United States.  It was a moment that just a few years ago few doubted they would ever see.  America, for all the progress we have made, just didn’t seem to be ready.  Even some of Obama’s closest supporters, when he announced his intention to run for President, said the time wasn’t right.  But, in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and our own Doug Wilder, the first African American ever to win a Governor’s race, he went ahead with his campaign anyway.
This week’s inaugural was profoundly moving and on a personal level it meant a great deal to me.  As a native Virginian I am proud of the Commonwealth.  We have the legacy of George Washington, my personal favorite, George Mason, and, of course, Thomas Jefferson.  Our general assembly is the oldest legislative body in America and our state, in this century, is one of the most modern and efficient in the nation.  When it comes to being a Virginian there is a lot to be proud of.  However, the story of Virginia is a complex one, and sadly, there is a less than admirable side of our history and that concerns race. 
Most of us over a certain age remember a different world.  When I was little I recall waiting in the “whites only” section of the train station.  My school was segregated.  The black kids who lived just across the street were bused to a school that was miles away.  I don’t recall ever asking why.  I guess I was a victim, as were most adults, of the old refrain of, “that’s just the way things are.”  But I also recall thinking it somehow the way things should be when these kids joined us for the start of the 1966 school year.
But, still, racism was a fact of life.  It wasn’t until 1971 that a Republican Governor named Linwood Holton would demand the rewriting of the Virginia Constitution to cleanse it of the racist clauses governing schools and voting.  A few years before the U.S. Supreme Court, in Virginia vs. Loving, said a black person could finally marry a white person if they chose to.  Virginia argued against the ban on mixed marriages.  It’s all a grim memory.  A legacy, which until very recently, always seemed to get in the way of any meaningful resolution of the human relations issues dealing with race.    
 Like a lot of white people race and racism is something I tend to talk about in the third person.  The reality, as much as I deplore it, or as a child growing up, observed the remnants of the Jim Crow system, was that racism happened to someone else.  No one ever denied me access to someplace I wanted to go because of my race and no employer ever gave me a second look because I was white. Still, that kind of system, and the prejudice that goes with it, wasn’t just a burden for African Americans.  They felt its cutting edge, but it was also a terrible burden on society as a whole.  Racism sidelines talent and ability, and worst of all, creates deep anxiety and hostility. 
For some people the election of Barack Obama represents a profound departure from that world.  However, what really mattered, and this is the defining point, was that for many Virginians the election wasn’t about voting for a black man or a white man.  It was simply about voting for the person they wanted to see as the next President.  That alone could represent the most remarkable transition in Virginia’s modern history. 
Twenty years ago, Douglas Wilder, a moderate, and arguably even a conservative Democrat, was elected Governor.  As we celebrate the Virginia of the 21st century we forget that in 1989 Virginia elected the nation’s first African American Governor.  But there is a footnote to that story.  The polls in that election all showed Wilder with a decisive lead going into Election Day.  However, and this is still debated, it seems that enough voters had a sudden change of heart, probably based on race, to make his election one of the closest in history.  In 2008 there was no evidence of the so-called Wilder effect.  Times really have changed.
Barack Obama’s election doesn’t mean our national debate, and some would say, our national obsession, over race is over.  But it does mean that when it comes to race in America nothing about the discussion is ever going to be the same again.  To which I say, with a relieved sigh, “thank goodness.”

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