It won’t be the protests – though Denver police somehow found it necessary to pepper-spray these dozens of clearly menacing protesters in downtown Denver tonight.
It won’t be Bill and Hillary Clinton’s speeches in coming nights — though regardless of who wins in November, I have every confidence we’ll be referring back to them along about 2011.
It certainly won’t be the staggering amount of corporate largesse that followed the Democrats to Denver — though we’d do well to remember it.
It won’t be Edward Kennedy’s appearance at the Pepsi Center tonight, even though his determination, and the crowd’s response, was enough to send chills down the spine of even a jaded old hack like me.
It won’t even be Michelle Obama’s speech tonight — though after that, the Republicans would be nuts to give Cindy McCain a speaking role in St. Paul.
Amidst all the usual (and not-so-usual) spectacles of a political convention, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, and that’s especially true here in Denver. To get a reminder, it’s helpful to talk with folks.Specifically, to talk with African-Americans. (The Latina/Native American family I’m staying with is a helpful reminder, too, but it’s not quite the same.) While trudging along in the heat today, I made a point of chatting up African-Americans — from delegates to convention staff to street vendors selling buttons, and everyone in between. Young and old, affluent and hustling to get by, all of them spoke, looked, and acted with a vibe I’d put somewhere between euphoric and disbelieving.
I’d bet that some, even many, don’t agree with all of Barack Obama’s policies. (A few probably can’t even name any.) But they know all too well that we still live in a racist country. Pick any measure of health, infant mortality, education, income, or incarceration that you like: the barriers to individual achievement by non-whites in general, and African-Americans in particular, are still pretty steep in this country. (And note that we still routinely define mixed race folks by what they are not, namely, sufficiently white to pass.)
Ten, 20, 50, 100 years from now, Barack Obama’s nomination in Denver — and, should he win, his ascendency to the White House in November — are what we will remember. Even though it’s only one man, and most of our worst race problems in this country are institutional, it’s a moment whose symbolic importance cannot be overstated. It’s easy to ridicule Obama admirers (as both Clinton supporters and now McCain supporters have gleefully done) for the way in which Obama inspires many of his fans not by his policy pronouncements, but because of who he is — not just as a person of color, but as someone who (unlike either Hillary, the president’s wife, or McCain, the admiral’s son) got where he is solely on his own considerable merits.
That he has gotten so far is a legacy that will inspire kids — and not just African-American kids, but kids of all races — for generations to come. Sure, the haters and bigots (some more subtle than others) will color this election’s outcome. (Including the apparent plot, reported locally today, of four white supremacists to assassinate Obama Thursday night.) Others may not be racist themselves, but will attempt to use racist fears and stereotypes to cold political advantage. But Obama’s story simply makes them, and every other story coming out of Denver and St. Paul over the next two weeks, seem petty. Even though this country still has a long, long way to go on race, the distance we’ve come just in the last 50 years is phenomenal. There aren’t many clear markers of that progress: Montgomery, Selma, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, various cultural milestones. But this is one we’ll remember for many years to come. Enjoy the moment.