Yes, I hear it. Barack Obama, with roots in Kansas and Kenya, Hawaii and Indonesia, was not really like most African Americans, so he didn’t count. (This year, Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson, backed by Rupert Murdoch, claimed the authentic black “experience” for himself, dismissing Obama altogether.) And Hillary Clinton , as the wife of a former president, with a lengthy political resume and a reputation for bare-knuckled dealings, is not your average female candidate, whatever that means, so she doesn’t count. (Young women who felt disconnected from her because “she’s a woman, big deal” were the go-to subject of endless think pieces this primary season.)
Why, after all the white male candidates who have lived in the White House and sat in the Oval Office, are so many Americans trying to pretend it’s nothing to see here when it comes to acknowledging history, or to dismiss those who admit to basking in a moment they thought they would never live to see?
On Thursday, the first African American president of the United States endorsed the woman he wants to succeed him, the woman he once battled and debated, then worked alongside when she was his secretary of State. President Obama said, “She’s got the courage, the compassion, and the heart to get the job done,” talking about the job he has had for eight years.
In the same way that Obama’s presidency didn’t shift the still very white overall power balance in America, Clinton’s candidacy won’t translate into women ruling the world. You only have to look at the current headlines, from fallout over the sentencing in a rape case at Stanford to discussion of the ethnicity of an American judge whose parents emigrated from Mexico, to know that sexism and racism are challenges this country has yet to overcome. The young age of the white man accused of shooting up a Charleston, South Carolina, church and killing nine black parishioners is a reminder that the country’s problems won’t disappear with new generations.
Yet symbols do mean something. Young children under 10 will know only the reality of Barack Obama followed by Hillary Clinton (on the Democratic Party ticket if not yet in the White House). In America, when women could not even vote and blacks were property and both were second-class citizens for most of its history, it’s worth pausing to acknowledge the message no matter how imperfect or not fitting the mold we judge the messengers to be.
There are reasons that make this year different from others, and the main ones are named Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, wild cards who, in the case of the first, gave Clinton a serious run for the nomination, and in the case of the second, sucked up all the oxygen in the room, every room. So it’s understandable that the conversation immediately turned to how Clinton will woo Sanders’ supporters and how Republicans will control their presumptive nominee.
But it’s also true that people have a tendency to set impossible standards for pioneers and look for flaws, real and perceived. With Hillary Clinton, we will be hearing a litany, as well as attacks on her husband, former president Bill Clinton, who is not on the ticket but is another of those big personalities she has been accused of not being. That is politics, of course, though it is ironic that one of the knocks against her has been that she is a scripted, nose-to-the-grindstone worker as opposed to her GOP opponent, Donald Trump, part of whose charm is said to be that he says whatever comes into his head. Would such off-the-cuff spontaneity work for the first woman heading a major political party ticket?
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Remember that Obama, with the picture perfect and perfectly behaved family, is still criticized when, for instance, wife Michelle Obama truthfully and poignantly, as proof of the endurance of the American Dream, tells college graduates how inspiring it is “when I wake up in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful black young women — head off to school, waving goodbye to their father, the president of the United States.”
With poise and the podium, she is not the first first lady who could have said that, but she is the first one who actually did.
So before the immediate admonition of how wrong it would be for African Americans to vote for Obama or women to do the same for Clinton in part to feel a teeny bit of a rush they have never before been able to experience, everyone needs to think about this moment and the positive things it says about America.
Almost all of the choices for leader of the free world have consisted of “do I vote for one white guy or the other white guy?” In the past two elections and the one coming up, that’s not so. It’s no longer the American way.
We live in a time when the state of California , usually a preview of what’s to come, is officially majority-minority and about to choose between two women of color when it votes in its next senator. Our Founding Fathers are wearing long hair not powdered wigs and are rapping in “Hamilton,” hardly the stately tableau of “1776” and the hottest ticket on Broadway.
A shift is happening, too slowly for some and too quickly for others. But whatever you think about it, it is history.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3 .