Was Rev. Jesse Jackson crying tears of joy at President-elect Barack Obama's victory celebration in Grant Park? Or was the civil rights leader weeping in regret that he might now be out of a job?
Caught by television cameras, Jackson's tears spoke volumes. It is important to remember that Jackson helped to pave the way for Obama. But, like some other old-school leaders, Jackson has been slow to recognize when to step out of the way.
For example, his most memorable contribution to Obama's presidential campaign came when Jackson's whispered wish to "cut his nuts off" was caught by a hot Fox News microphone. Jackson apologized profusely. No problem. His gaffe undoubtedly reassured skeptical whites that Obama was not a Jackson clone.
Much was said about how Obama was opening a "post-racial" era, although "multiracial" is more appropriate. Race and racism have not evaporated. Nor has the need for diversity to be respected, not just tolerated. Jackson's not out of a job yet. But Obama's victory moves our old baseline of racial expectations to a higher and happier level. It's hard to argue that our society is irredeemably racist when our multiracial electorate just elected a man with African roots and an Arabic-sounding name to be commander in chief.
Yes, we did.
No, Obama did not win over a majority of white males, according to exit polls. Neither have the previous five Democratic nominees. But with 41 percent of white men and about half of all white women and independents, Obama outperformed the other five among those groups.
He also did better than John Kerry and Al Gore among Hispanics and all income brackets, including a 5 percent gain since 2004 among those who earn less than $50,000 a year and an 8 percent gain in the over-$100,000-a-year income group, according to the Pew Research Center. Sorry, Joe the Plumber.
Pew also reports that Obama increased voter turnout since 2004 among self-identified Republicans (up 3 percent), moderates (up 6 percent) and conservatives (up 5 percent).
But that doesn't mean that Obama's contest with Sen. John McCain was the "referendum on the goodness of America," that conservative MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson sarcastically complained that the media portrayed it.
"I just resent the implication that America is a better country if it voted for Barack Obama," he grumped on Election Night. "That's a slur on people who voted against Obama." Agreed. Yet, as one McCain voter who joined the celebration of Obama's victory told me, he was not happy that his man lost but that "our country has won." America is a better country, in other words, not because so many of us voted for Obama but because many more of us have made a place where Obama's victory is possible.
In Kenya, by contrast, Obama's father's minority Luo tribe celebrated, but with a bitter knowledge that it is easier for a Luo to be elected president in America than in Kenya.
"Only in America," Americans said with a new sense of pride. It certainly was better to see folks overseas happily waving our flag instead of burning it.
Back here at home, Pew found the only major group that went the other way, giving fewer votes to this year's Democratic nominee, was voters who were older than 65. Significantly, that generation includes much of our 1960s-era civil rights leadership. When skeptical black political and civil rights leaders questioned Obama's "blackness," Obama persevered, forcing some black leaders, like Jackson, to catch up with the masses whom they were trying to lead.
Obama had an advantage in his quest, I suspect, in his lack of a family ancestry in American slavery, a defining characteristic of most African-Americans. Being raised by his white mother and grandparents in multiracial Hawaii and Indonesia, he was spared the post-slavery traumatic syndrome that for many of us African-Americans has been a cultural crippler. Many of us older folks were conditioned at an early era about our "place" in a white-dominated society in ways that culturally cripple many of our offspring, if the young'uns bother to listen to us at all.
Obama was spared all that, judging by his autobiographies. Although he was born an American, his multiracial view, energized with optimism, is characteristic of immigrants. While others rail relentlessly about America's limitations, he remains resolutely focused on our possibilities. He has enlisted us, his fellow Americans, in his cause and given all of us a good reason to feel like winners.