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This American Moment
The crowd waves U.S. flags as it is announced on television that Barack Obama has been elected the President of the United States at his election night party at Grant Park in Chicago, Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The crowd at Grant Park in Chicago waves flags as it is announced that Barack Obama has been elected the President of the United States, Tuesday night, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP)

History was all over the vote count last night, as Barack Obama — Democrat, first-term senator, African-American son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother — was elected 44th president of the United States.

In any country on Earth, such a rise would be stunning. In America, with its deep history of slavery, racial strife and race-tarred politics, it is for many astounding. And it has happened.

It was just 40 years ago that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last speech in Memphis. On April 3, 1968, King said he’d seen the potential for equal rights in the United States: “I may not get there with you,” he said. But the Promised Land would come.

Yesterday’s election of Barack Obama may not be the Promised Land. But it is a giant moment in America’s singular national story.

This hour, On Point: Obama’s victory, in the context of history.

You can join the conversation. How would you describe, for the history books, what happened yesterday at the polls? What does it mean for America’s national story?

Guests:

Joining us from Stanford, California, is David M. Kennedy, professor of history at Stanford University. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945″ and the bestselling textbook “The American Pageant: A History of the Republic.”

And from Rutgers University in New Jersey, we welcome Nell Irvin Painter, professor emerita of history at Princeton University. She is a leading scholar of the experiences of African-Americans, women and the working class. Her many books include “Southern History Across the Color Line,” “Creating Black Americans,” and “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.”

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  • benmarks

    Tom Toles has a magnificent cartoon over at washingtonpost.com; the gist of it is this:
    “‘We hold theses truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ … Ratified November 4, 2008″

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I agree benmarks, Toles nailed it yet again. Wow, made me cry. Everything is making me cry today. Wow, what a time.

  • Pamela Steager (Stay-grrr)

    I see this moment in US history as one giant leap for Americans, one small step for humankind. It’s the third giant leap – 1) the abolition of slavery brought about in large part by Republican president Abraham Lincoln, 2) support for the Civil Rights movement and signing the Voting Rights Act by Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and now the election of a person of color as president.

    Discrimination in general, and racism in particular have not disappeared from our land or planet with this leap. There is so much work needed in that regard. But it is a huge symbolic moment, and from the sound of the emails I’m getting from international colleagues, definitely a shot of hope felt ’round the world.

  • Bill

    In the previous hour, a caller expressed that she was upset that people had said they were now proud to be Americans after this election, saying that it was a slap in the face to soldiers who have served our country.

    I believe that it is possible to fight for a country with pride and integrity even when one is not proud of one’s leaders or national reputation. This is the only way to create something to be proud of. The soldiers who fought and gave their lives in WWI and WWII created, through their service, the national reputation which the Bush administration so throroughly decimated these last eight years. The bus riders in Selma were not proud of what America had been, but were deservedly proud of what they helped it become. The vast majority of our soldiers work hard to represent this great country as rightous and just, and they deserve a leader who embodies that same image. The shameful behavior of some of our leaders has made Americans pariahs in much of the world and placed us in danger when we travel abroad.

    When we find ourselves not proud of the America we’ve become, we need to change America. As voters, we can and should be proud of the steps we took to do so yesterday and once again begin to feel proud to be Americans.

  • Robert Evans

    Tom points out the irony that the first elected african-american is a Democrat (the Republicans having been the party of emancipation, etc). Even more striking is that the first black president is not, in fact, a descendent of slaves or of immigrants, but rather of an African visitor to this country.

  • Bill Shelton

    When Barak Obama spoke last night about bending the arc of history, he was harkening back to Dr. King’s promise that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. But last night, Barak made clear that if the arc is to bend, it must be bent by us. He asked us all to sacrifice for each other and for our nation. I believe that that the more he mobilizes all of us to bend the arc of history, the more successful will be his presidency, and the more hopeful his shared future.

  • Anastasia Curwood

    How wonderful it is to have Nell Irvin Painter help us make sense of this amazing moment. Those of us who study United States history with an awareness of how inextricable it is from African-American history have our heads buzzing with thoughts and emotions. It is indeed a watershed.

  • Joan Warnshuis

    I am imagining the next milestone in our growing culture of acceptance: WHEN THE ETHNICITY OF A NATIONAL CANDIDATE IS NO LONGER EVEN AN ISSUE.

    Remember, not so long ago, the imagined threat of a Catholic president – with Al Smith and JFK; the stain of a divorce – Nelson Rockerfeller. Those issues no longer matter widely in our culture or our politics – let us work for the day when Race is equally insignificant.

    Joan Warnshuis “Warn-sise”

  • Crystal Feimster

    How does the fact that we, historians (I’m a historian of the American South), could not imagine a black man being elected President in our life time tell us about how we have written American history and how it will be written in the future?

  • Nancy

    As a 58 year old white woman, I am delighted that Barack Obama was elected and that we have an African-American as president. At the same time, I did not vote for Barack because of his heritage or in spite of it. I voted for him because he is the most inspiring, unifying and qualified leader that we’ve had for years. Once again, I am proud to be an American.

  • Aimee Houghton

    I get so frustrated by people such as the listener that just stated that she thinks Obama was elected solely because he is black and because of some kind of “white guilt”. Personally, I am a white, 50 year old female who has never volunteered for a campaign before. I am so inspired by Obama’s message of hope and unity that I got involved in his campaign. I have read his “Audacity of Hope” book and I agree with most of his views on the important issues facing us as a nation. To distill this historic election down to “white guilt” ignores the substance of the man and the intelligence of his supporters. The fact that he is African American is just a footnote – albeit one of historic significance – as far as I’m concerned

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I can’t believe the woman was who just called up and said Obama won because he’s black. This belittles all of the black AND white people who voted for him, not because he’s black, but because he’s the best candidate who happens to be black.

    Black people would have overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton and were doing so even as Obama was in the race. It was as Obama became better known to them, and me that we got behind him.

    That call wrecked my day. Tom and guests, please, educate these people.

  • http://www.tonyconner.com Tony

    In response to the caller from Needham MA who expressed the belief that Barack Obama was elected only because he is black – attributing his election essentially to “white guilt”. I suspect that this is one of those sour grape type comments of those who are unhappy with the election result.

    I am a 51 year old, white male originally from Virginia. Obama received my vote, not based on the color of his skin but based on my belief that his positions, personality and temperment give me hope for the future of this country – hope that I have not had over the recent past.

  • Mark Zamcheck

    I am from Needham and could not disagree more with the previous caller from Needham.
    The fact that Obama is black just gave me more reason to cast my vote for this gifted man.
    Her comment illustrates just how deeply the McCain
    strategy to destroy Obama has cut into voter consciousness.

  • http://juan.a.alonso@navy.mil Juan Alonso

    A woman just called and stated that Barack Obama was elected President becuase he was black and not qualified. Qualified? As qualified as Pres Bush? Look where a so called qualified President has taken us!

  • jeff

    I get so frustrated by people such as the listener that just stated that she thinks Obama was elected solely because he is black and because of some kind of “white guilt”. Personally, I am a white, 50 year old female who has never volunteered for a campaign before. I am so inspired by Obama’s message of hope and unity that I got involved in his campaign. I have read his “Audacity of Hope” book and I agree with most of his views on the important issues facing us as a nation. To distill this historic election down to “white guilt” ignores the substance of the man and the intelligence of his supporters. The fact that he is African American is just a footnote – albeit one of historic significance – as far as I’m concerned
    Posted by Aimee Houghton, on November 5th, 2008 at 11:44 am EST

    Here here!

  • Barbara in UT

    This is a small step forward for our United States, our country with a checkered past and present. The American ideals are something for which we can always be proud, but unfortunately our country doesn’t always reflect those ideals. Last night was a step forward.

    I believe each new generation becomes less racist and more tolerant of others. This was crystallized for me when watching a cable news station during the primaries, when my children pointed out something that was said that they felt was racist, but I didn’t even recognize it.

    I’m hopeful and heartened to see this step forward, and proud that my children are witnesses in this time.

    I believe Barack Obama was the best candidate for this time and not because of the color of his skin. I am sanguine; I believe he’ll be a successful president. There is a tough road ahead with this economy and the troubles in the world.

    Won’t it be a wonderful day when we elect a president without having to talk about race, and hopefully one day gender?

    God bless America!

  • Rahul Kushwaha

    The reason why this victory is so significant, is because, yet again, we (Americans) prove to the world that not only do we have high ideals and standards which inspire and provide leadership goals. We actually, live by our words, and someone like President Elect Obama overcame all the historical ‘baggage’ and bigotry gives ALL of us hope that things can and DO change. So, this historical victory validates our desire and wish for HOPE. Hope for the better future for us, our children and the World.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I happen to be a 57 year old white male who voted for Obama because he is the best qualified person to run for President in my lifetime. Am I happy that he happens to be black? You betcha. But, it belittles me and everyone like me to suggest that we voted for him because we feel guilt or we’re putting race above qualifications in our decision.

    Obama is going to be a great President who happens to be black and that’s exactly the way he’s presented himself to the American people.

    And yes, I’m proud to be an American today because we elected a highly qualified and gifted black person to lead our country in a world where racism still lives.

  • Patrick

    This is certainly an historic election for all the reasons discussed by all.

    However, another historical aspect of this election is that it finally marks the return of an educated, thoughtful and articulate “intellectual” to the white house.

    I think when we have elected the antithesis of this archetype is when we get into trouble as a nation.

    Can you imagine Obama making an a priori decision to invade Iraq in spite of the known evidence, and then engaging in a concerted attempt to create and interpret “evidence” of WND and 9/11 involvement? I certainly cannot.

  • Amy

    I would like to comment on 2 recent callers. One woman claimed that Obama was elected out of guilt because he is black, saying that the more urban and higher education centers hold some sort of guilt, while the middle of the country votes more on issues and less on appearances. She also claimed that if you look at his lack of experience this further proves her point. I think she misses the point. For starters I would argue that many people ignored his color but were voting for his charisma and intelligence. I think race was a factor for those who are racists and was a factor for people of color who have previously felt disenfrancised, but otherwise it was not. At one point in the campaign some even questioned if he was really even black because he didn’t fit some mold. No one is voting for a Harvard educated lawyer out of guilt.

    As for the experience issue: Remember also that he was running in a time when the current administration has been so widely criticized that his more limited experience is almost a plus in some voters’ eyes. I think that were he was running following a more moderate administration, it may have been more difficult sell that we need so much change. But it’s all about timing.

    An earlier called spoke of the commitment it took for older white voters to put aside popular (albeit not correct) notions of black men (think rap, crime images) and vote for Obama despite discomfort and lack of personal experience with a black man of his intelligence and stature. I think his point is worth noting.

  • Sandra Mongeon

    I think that this is a tremendous win for our country. But I also think that we still we have huge issues with minorities.

    Latinos in this country will be the majority in the near future. I live in a community where half of the population is Puerto Rican. I tend to believe that they, and Latinos in general, are the NEW black people.

    Many folks feel that we have overcome many issues with African-Americans. Electing Obama to the presidency, is likely to have some folks saying…what else could THEY want? So the racism towards African-Americans will continue and likely become inflamed.

    Couple that with the notion that Latinos are barely considered part of the equation in moving forward. I wouldn’t overlook the complex issues we have facing us when the Latino population takes the majority. The prejudice against them is rampant. Obama will have to consider their struggle ahead. I believe it will be quite ugly.

  • Heidi

    Before last night, I’d never cried during a president-elect’s acceptance speech. It is a relief that we will once again have a president who is intelligent, informed, thoughtful, and articulate. And it is a relief to have finally hopped over a racial hurdle.

  • Elizabeth

    Yes. This is a very interesting occurence. This might be a generational and perhaps regional thing though. I grew up in an area that is one of the most diverse in the country. Now I live overseas. People have been coming up to me congratulating me on my country’s elections. They find it very inspiring that what they thought of as a racist country has elected a brown-skinned person to its highest office.
    I personally don’t care about people’s ‘race’. Growing up I have seen competent and incompetent people of all ‘colors’. People are people. I learned that growing up and have seen it more and more living in a foreign country.
    I am happy to have a patently intelligent man as our president elect. I think he has a lot of good ideas and is a fantastic communicator. I definitely did not support him only because he is black. I voted for him because I like what he says and I believe he’s going to do a good job. I think it’s great that people are finding inspiration in the image though. In hard times people need all of that they can get.
    I hope people like the caller Olivia will be able to handle a president with dark skin. I’m sure there are many people who believe Obama won ‘only because he’s black’ and can never accept the idea that a non-white person could actually be the most qualified too.
    I so wish to, and let’s see if we can, pass the page on color prejudice and complexes of racial superiority and inferiority. What good does this do us? It’s a prison for the mind. Best wishes to all Americans, every one of us.

  • Amy

    One more comment. I find it interesting that Obama/the press didn’t talk much about race during the election, but now that it is over we can’t stop talking about it. I understand why, but it’s just a note.

  • Maria

    My 9 and 12 year old kids who have grown up in a diverse community and attend the Boston public schools, have been raised to believe that people are equal regardless of race (and gender and sexual orientation and on and on). So they often didn’t quite understand why the idea of voting for a black president might be difficult or impossible for some. But it also raised vexing questions of what is black? What is white? And who decides? I couldn’t resist pointing out to them that Barack’s mom and grandmother are white and that in fact many people that we identify as black are much more complicated than that. And that we who identify ourselves as white don’t likely know if we have non-european ancestors. I don’t mean to say that color or race is irrelevant. On the contrary, I find that this has been a fascinating opportunity to challenge myself and my kids to think about how easy it is to box people into a category.

    Though I was Hillary supporter at the outset, after Obama’s speech on race I began to believe that he was uniquely qualified to lead us forward and help us address these questions as a nation. I am delighted at his win and hope that he can help us become less of a divided nation.

  • Eva Robertson

    It is the same desperation that fueled my passion to see Obama president that is aroused in me when I hear comments suggesting that we elected him out of some kind of collective guilt for the racist sins of our past. We are not a nation that acts out of guilt. Those who oppose Obama know this when they argue that he will tax the suffering middle class and imperil our country by consorting with terrorists. This is talk that plays to the worst of American qualities — greed, ignorance, and bigotry. I am deeply proud of this country for saying with a united voice that it is ready to move beyond this kind of divisive politics and to start taking personal responsibility for the calamitous state we have brought to. We didn’t give Barack a sympathy vote. We said “Yes We Can.”

  • Delinda

    What a wonderful day this is! I cannot remember another like it and am sixty-six, Indeed America has a renewed bounce in its step and the wind at its back.

  • Julia

    Racism did not end when the North freed the slaves, Racism did not end when the North ended segregation, and Racism will not end with the North electing an African-American president. Racism in the South is the elephant in the living room that noone seems to be addressing today.
    The largest black population is in the South. Many black voters may feel today, like I do, that their Alabama vote for Barack Obama did not count. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, nor Tennessee will have any electoral votes for Barack Obama. You cannot convince me that racism was not a factor in many of the Southern votes for John McCain.

  • Ron Bailor. Spokane

    Tom,
    I do not believe that Barack Obama was elected because he is black and it was not just young people who chose him.

    I am a few months older than John McCain and am also a retired senior military officer with 34 years of service.

    I voted for “President Elect” Barack Obama because he is better qualified in terms of Constitutional knowledge and making the most of life his experiences.
    However, the primary factors, for me, were temperament and judgment.

    In a a dangerous world we need a sharp, “cool head.” By the way, I am white.

  • AV

    Can you imagine Obama making an a priori decision to invade Iraq in spite of the known evidence, and then engaging in a concerted attempt to create and interpret “evidence” of WND and 9/11 involvement? I certainly cannot.

    Patrick, if the basis of your imagination is that the Democrats are peace-loving, you might want to look at the record of Bill Clinton vis-a-vis Iraq and sanctions, and whether Clinton reversed course on US policies related to Iraq that were set by Bush Sr. You might want to take a look at the following:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Liberation_Act

    as well as the reasons for bombing Al-Shifa factory:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Shifa_pharmaceutical_factory

    (Though there’s also Wag-the-Dog theory for this as well as bombing of Iraq by Clinton.)

    I, for one, will wait for some evidence before declaring that Obama is not for continuation of US military policies or will reduce the US military-industrial complex, before making such unfalsifiable claims. (I’ve heard such similar unfalsifiable claims about Gore too when there’s little-to-no evidence to make such claims.) But given that Obama is choosing many Clinton advisers to serve in his own cabinet, it doesn’t look like much is going to change.

    There’s no reason to pull down those websites that run a count of innocent Iraqis killed because of US aggression.

    Bush’s “Bad Cop” and Obama’s “Good Cop” shouldn’t cloud our judgment as well as make us blind to the reality that the cop still gets what he wants. It’s best to continue holding the good cop to high standards and expecting more of him, rather than being lulled into complacency that all will be wonderful with the world now that a Democrat is in the WH. To innocent Iraqis dying in Iraq, it doesn’t matter whether it is Bush in the WH or Obama. And it shouldn’t make a difference to us either – we should continue to be as outraged as we were before when Iraqis were being killed on Bush’s watch.

  • AV

    Can you imagine Obama making an a priori decision to invade Iraq in spite of the known evidence, and then engaging in a concerted attempt to create and interpret “evidence” of WND and 9/11 involvement? I certainly cannot.

    Patrick, if the basis of your imagination is that the Democrats are peace-loving, you might want to look at the record of Bill Clinton vis-a-vis Iraq and sanctions, and whether Clinton reversed course on US policies related to Iraq that were set by Bush Sr. You might want to take a look at the following:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_Liberation_Act

    as well as the reasons for bombing Al-Shifa factory:
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Shifa_pharmaceutical_factory

    (Though there’s also Wag-the-Dog theory for this bombing as well as bombing of Iraq by Clinton.)

    When compared to Bush, there’s reason to be hopeful, but I’ll wait for some evidence before declaring that Obama is not for continuation of US military policies or will reduce the US military-industrial complex, before making such unfalsifiable claims. (I’ve heard such similar unfalsifiable claims about Gore too when there’s little-to-no evidence to make such claims.) But given that Obama is choosing quite a few Clinton advisers to serve in his own cabinet, it doesn’t look like much is going to change.

    So there’s no reason to pull down those websites that run a count of innocent Iraqis killed because of US aggression.

    Bush’s “Bad Cop” and Obama’s “Good Cop” shouldn’t cloud our judgment as well as make us blind to the reality that the bar may be set really really low for Obama. It’s best to expect more of him, rather than being lulled into complacency that all will be wonderful with the world now that a Democrat is in the White House. To innocent Iraqis dying in Iraq, it doesn’t matter whether it is Bush in the WH or Obama. And it shouldn’t make a difference to us either – we should continue to be as outraged as we were before when Iraqis were being killed on Bush’s watch.

  • Alma T. Bell

    I wonder what the caller and her friend did when the waitress she talked about expressed her feelings about the possibility of the President-Elect being murdered. Could she possibily have continued with her lunch and thereby supported this person? I certainly hope not.
    A. T. Bell

  • Linda Sheffler

    I agree that Obama was not elected because he was black, or because of the youth vote. My mother will turn 88 on Inauguration Day. She left the Republican Party when GWBush became president. She started reading everything she could find by and about Obama when he became a Senator. She was thrilled when he became a presidential candidate, because of his intelligence, levelheadedness, ability to bridge divides, diverse background, work ethic, etc. I am a little tired of people who want to simplify and categorize the candidates and the voters. Maybe black people, old people, white women, even George Wallace’s daughter (really!) voted for Obama because based on they made an educated choice on the person they though was the best candidate.
    L. Sheffler

  • Susan

    I am thrilled as I supported Obama. My question is how could the west coast states be called so quickly with polls barely closed? While watching the results come in our governor race was showing 0% for the candidates and yet the Presidential race was decided. Just curious.
    Susan

  • http://gretchengeser.com Gretchen

    I’m pleased and relieved that we elected a black man to the presidency. It was a long time coming. (And I say that as a white woman.) But I voted for Obama because he’s a genius. How lucky we are to have him.

  • Paul

    Answer to Gretchen: All significant polls showed that The West Coast states were overwhelmingly for Obama. The media waited until the 11 PM (EST) polling place closings on the coast, and then, even without the actual returns in, it was “safe” to call the race for Obama, because the electoral numbers from CA, OR, and WA were more than enough to put him over the top.

  • Alec Simpson

    I am Canadian in Calgary, Alberta. I prayed for the election of Obama. You can be sure, though, it had nothing to do with his race or creed. He is just plainly a good person!

    I have the hope of which he speaks. Regardless of all of the pressure that will be brought to bear, he will do his utmost to do the right thing.

    Please let him be the person he is. The USA will be the greatest country again if you do.

  • Corwyn

    While I am pleased that Obama won for the social implications and the inspiration for the african american community. My joy is tempered by what is IMHO an “I got mine” attitude that is more prevalent from the AA community then an enlightenment of/for equality.

    I think that it is both shameful and a betrayal of Rev. Kings dream that the African American community is largely responsible for the passage of ban gay marriage amendments in CA, FL and AZ among others!

    For the entire history of constitutional work and the entirety of the civil rights movement constitutions have always been about EXTENDING and GIVING rights to those who have been abused.

    The FIRST, and perhaps the most shameful, time in Constitutional history people voted to TAKE away a groups rights and it was made possible to a large part because of the african american vote.

    Apparently the AA communities sense of justice and equality was/is not keen enough to recognize that THEY are just as guilty of hatred and irrational bigotry as those white southerns were for believing that Africans are only 3/5th human and that mixed marriages should be banned because they are against gods will or that blacks should not be judged by the content of their characters, but by their skin color.

    I guess we still have a long ways to go.

    PS.

    I am white, married not in the closet and to the best of my knowledge have no close friends or relatives that are gay. So I have no skin in this game.

    But Hypocrisy is hypocrisy and just as whites from the North marched with blacks in Selma, people should do the same for others

  • Dave

    I find it a little dissapointing that many are celebrating the fact than an african american won the election over the fact that a very inspiring, very intelligent, and very capable leader has won, his race, or gender for that matter, being irrelevant. It seems to me that Obama ran, or at least tried to run, as a candidate who transcended race. But we have consistently dragged him back down to this matter which continues to burdened our minds and hearts. Whether it be comments of campaign accusations of reverse discrimination, the Rev Wright video clips, or even the lopsided voting trends of african americans, we can’t seem to let it go. In this matter, Obama may personify what we strive to be. But in our elation in his victory in becomming “the first black president”, we miss the point of the example he has set.

  • magwa101

    Cynical people may say we’ll see if there is a difference, what they fail to see is that from this point forward, everything is different. Every kid in the world sees this and knows they can become a leader too.

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