Reader Opinions on: The Election of President Barack Obama
Barack Obama’s election as the 44th president of the United States is a momentous development in America’s social and political evolution. The first African American elected to the highest office in the land is not only a leading intellectual but also a prominent lawyer, community activist, and Constitutional law professor. In light of this remarkable occasion, MCCA asked members of its network to share their thoughts about what Obama’s candidacy and election means to them. Some of the responses are featured in this inaugural edition of Reader Opinions; others will be posted online at www.mcca.com.
I’m a white woman born in 1961 in Dearborn, Michigan, a highly segregated (white) middle-class suburb, and raised within 10 miles of the Detroit race riots of the 60’s. The political issues of my youth were mandatory school bussing and the war in Vietnam, which pitted kids like me against TV images of angry black men who threatened the presumptions of my way of life from just next door and faceless Asians who sniper-attacked US soldiers thousands of miles away. Dearborn is also home to the largest Arabic community outside of the Middle East, but my exposure to these neighbors only a few miles away was also limited in my youth, and I never even considered my unique connection to the issues of Arab-Americans until they arose at the national level post 9/11. I have to admit that I never really knew anyone of any color or background other than my own until I got to college at Michigan State University in 1979. And remember, I grew up in a progressive, Capital-L Liberal-leaning union family with parents who spoke often of equality and justice.
I remember the shock, the nervousness, and excitement of experiencing so many people of so many economic, social and racial backgrounds in college. I felt — rightly or wrongly — I had to leave Michigan in order to avoid falling into the familiar and comfortable patterns that would have marked a return to my hometown after graduation. I made my home in Washington, DC after graduating law school and began working on diversity initiatives in the late 80’s after joining the staff of the Association of Corporate Counsel. I was fortunate to work with a leadership full of visionaries who were struggling with diversity issues in the workplace as that concept was still emerging, and struggling with the fact that so many of the bar diversity initiatives out there were a bunch of well-intentioned programs that didn’t do anything meaningful to move the needle. ACC presented me with the opportunity to make diversity one of my work priorities and establish projects and relationships that would promote more than dialog.
I will never be able to say “I’ve overcome my history,” since I believe that’s never totally possible for any of us, but I’m proud to say that I can look to my past to inform my future, I’m proud to have been a founding member of the MCCA board, I’m proud to be a colleague of Veta Richardson and many of the MCCA staff, I’m proud to count so many leaders of the bars of color amongst my community of colleagues, and now, I’m proud to vote for Barack Obama and anticipate what his Presidency will bring to this country. I hope that it presents a chance for millions of white Americans, still in the silos of what’s comfortable and still threatened by those whose backgrounds are outside of their experience, to know that it’s not skin color that makes this presidency such an historic event, but the fact that more Americans of every color, of every background, and of every social/economic strata rushed to embrace a call for change by a man who didn’t look like them and whose experiences were not necessarily ones they traditionally counted as those of a Presidential candidate. Barack Obama can be the first President of all of us, and for all our futures, precisely because he is not of the majority’s common experience. We flocked to him in spite of that. We chose him because he’s what we want. How cool is that?
I regularly force myself to the task of unloading and examining the backpack of presumptions and culture that were part of my growing up years – it’s often uncomfortable, but always rewarding. I spend lots of time thinking about what’s valuable to load back into that pack for me, and my kids and the future of our country. Barack Obama’s candidacy and presidency are essential to helping all Americans examine what’s in their backpack and whether what’s there is what they want to keep or what they need to focus on changing in order for us all to work together to meet the challenges we face, whether those challenges involve our neighbors less than 10 or more than 10,000 miles away.
—Susan Hackett: Caucasian, Female, Boomer
For so long, the laws in this country have been rooted in racism. Obama’s historic victory signifies that Americans are moving beyond race. Obama led the national polls as the American choice for president not because he is black, but because Americans are finding that we are more similar than we are different. What we have in common are the same hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families. Irrespective of race, Americans want equality in education, housing, employment, health care, and other quality of life issues.
Race was a factor in the 2008 presidential election because of who we have been as Americans, but race was not the deciding factor because of what we have become as Americans. Who we have been as Americans is a people with a history mired in racial pain and hatred, but America has changed. The overwhelming acceptance of Obama’s candidacy by so many Americans radiates that change. I believe that this paradigm shift will be reflected in the laws of this country as we move forward. That, indeed, is historic. For that, I am proud.
—Jennifer Smith: African American, Female, Gen X
Recently, someone close to me, beloved, told me about the precipitating event in his recovery from a bad life, his second DUI. He was driving with an old running buddy, open beers in the car, drugs and pipes in the glove compartment, when police car red lights showed in his rear view mirror. His buddy freaked out, began pitching the beers and the drugs.
But my beloved sat still and said quietly, “No, no, this is good. This is a good thing.”
The world is in turmoil in what, at root, is a classic revolution of wonderfully rising expectations for equity and prosperity. The election of Senator Obama obviously provides hope, a distinctively American hope, for millions with those expectations, worldwide.
The absolutely serious duty of every patriotic American is to put individual and institutional agendas aside, and work to make the new President's administration the success it must be.
—Caucasian, Male, Boomer, “McCain supporter”
As a Japanese American whose mother, a U.S. citizen, was denied due process of law and interned in a camp in Arkansas for 4 years during WWII due to her ethnicity, Obama's election is particularly poignant to me. My teenage sons are excited about this monumental event because they have studied the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and attend an ethnically diverse high school. Obama's election encourages me that they and their generation will push the diversity envelope even further. The diversity reflected in the Chicago crowd was energizing and empowering and represented to me the new face of America. General Colin Powell correctly called Obama a "transformational figure" because he is all of that and more. We sensed that in 2005 when Obama spoke to us at the NAPABA Convention in Chicago and we were right then as the country is right now.
—Asian Pacific American, Male, Boomer
The election of Barack Obama as President has filled my heart with pride and achievement as an African American. Never in my lifetime did I think I would live to see this day! As a mother of three small African American sons, it gives me confidence that all of my boys can truly be whatever they want to be. As an attorney, it gives me faith that now we finally have a Commander in Chief who is in tune with working class Americans and who will ensure that our federal laws provide support and justice for all. Change has finally come. God Bless our First Family and our country.
—Michele C. Meyer-Shipp: African American, Female, Boomer
My father grew up in South Carolina during a time when most public places had "Colored" sections. Up until election day I could not imagine that I would see our nation elect an African American President. Images of the Obama and Biden children standing together made me recall this passage …"One day little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." That dream came to fruition on November 4, 2008. Our great nation united and our one voice was heard.
—Jonathan Davis: African American, Male, Gen X
I was in Sydney, Australia the week of the election and I was struck by the intensity and interest in this election.
The media continually emphasized the historic nature, the civil rights movement and what it meant for African Americans and all Americans as well as the rest of the world. Many commentators also noted that this could only happen in America–that no other Western democracy was even close to electing a minority and that once again we had become a beacon for the rest of the world.
—Fred Krebs: Caucasian, Male, Boomer
While the election of Obama is a significant step for this country, it is infuriating to me that in this country, racism trumps sexism. The most qualified, smartest and most experienced candidate was absent from the ticket. That person was Hillary Clinton. I'm a Hispanic woman and it's disturbing to see that many women self-associate themselves with their race first as opposed to their gender. Aren't women, even white women, minorities too? Why was public perception of the belief that a small percentage of the population (African Americans) were more deserving of the candidacy than a woman? Why was Clinton belittled and maligned so much during the race? Why do women have to step aside again to let yet another man can grab the brass ring? Why should a women have to wait? Haven't we paid our dues too?
—Hispanic, Female, Gen X
Opportunity is at our doorstep, and we finally have the leadership to seize it and make our world a better place. Hallelujah!
—Elaine Arabatzis: Caucasian, Female, Boomer
Too many emotions for too many people for too long.
Regardless of your politics – and this is not a partisan political message – I feel confident that the election of Barack Obama has a degree of extra special meaning for everyone for whom this publication is important.
Like President-Elect Obama, we are all lawyers of color.
Like him, we are all the beneficiaries of many others – black, white, brown, multi-racial and otherwise – on whose shoulders we stand every day.
Like him, many of us are parents or guardians who want the best for our children. In that regard, I remember a comment made by the consultant who conducted our firm wide diversity training while I was serving as Holland & Knight's first Diversity Partner, to the effect that black children in America used to look at pictures of the Presidents and say, "Not me, not me, not me." As of last night, black children can now say in some sense, "That's me, that's me, that's me."
Whoever you voted for and whatever your personal feelings about Barack Obama, this country and the world are different today – in a better way – than they were before. Another monumentally important "First" has occurred. Going forward we can now focus on achieving in future Presidential elections all the other equally important "Firsts" that remain: the election of Presidents who are women, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, GLBT, etc., until all those "Firsts," too, become just routine – so that hopefully in the not so distant future, all of our children can say, "That's me, that's me, that's me."
—African American, Male, Boomer
I [was] born overseas to American parents of English and French-German extraction, and live in Chicago two blocks from President-elect Obama's Election Night celebration. In my lifetime I have seen a sitting American President shot and killed (Kennedy), one shot and not killed (Reagan), one shot at (twice) and missed (Ford), one choose not to run for re-election (Johnson), one resign from office (Nixon), one become President without ever being elected either Vice President or President (Ford again), one impeached (Clinton), and one take office with a minority of the popular vote (Bush). At long last I have witnessed Presidential history being made in a way in which all Americans can be justifiably proud, and I was there Election Night. Congratulations to President-elect Obama and all best wishes to him, his family, and his transition team for a successful term in office!
—Caucasian, Male, Boomer
Barack Obama's election to the United States presidency and the candidacies of John McCain and Hillary Clinton affirm to me that our country has reached the point that so many of our profession have desired, believed possible and fought for: Our country is achieving true diversity and inclusion, selecting our leaders based on the quality and value they will bring to national offices versus ethnicity, disability, age or gender. The efforts of our traditionalist grandparents and parents, who worked tirelessly to free us of the biases that drag society down and the laws that perpetuated inequality; our baby boomers, who rebelled against lingering prejudices and embraced people who were "different"; and now our GenX and Millennial children, who live the maxim that all persons are created equal, have led us to this wonderful point in our nation's history. I cannot wait for the accomplishments and achievements yet to come.
—Catharine Ohlsson Gracia: Caucasian, Female, Boomer
I am the only African American Shareholder practicing in Real Estate at Greenberg Traurig, a law firm with over 1,750 lawyers and government professionals in 32 offices across the world. Simply put, as a lawyer today, Barack Obama's election victory means that the glass ceiling in the highest office in the world has been shattered (resoundingly) and that the doors of opportunity are now truly open for me to pursue and achieve any level of success in my practice that I am willing to sacrifice and work for; and this same opportunity is available to my three sons (Noah, Joshua and Justin) in whatever career paths they choose.
—Jonathan Michael Perry: African American, Male, Gen X
MCCA thanks everyone who responded to this initial offering of Reader Opinions.
Note: “Traditionalist” refers to those born before 1945; “Baby Boomer” between 1945 and 1964; “Generation X” between 1965 and 1980; and “Generation Y” or “Millenial” after 1980.
From the January/February 2009 issue of Diversity & The Bar®