How is the Obama presidential election different from any other in our national history? In 1963 as a child in the third grade, I was told I could be president of the United States because it was a democracy. At home, my father did not discourage me, but he did not believe it—not because I was not smart enough but because I was his son, a Hispanic. And in America that would not do.
When my daughter was told in 1987 and my son in 1991 that they could be president of this country, they believed it, but her grandfather and I, her father, did not—not because they were not smart enough but because they, like their father and grandfather, are Hispanic. And in America that would not do.
Ah, but in 2011 my grandson will enter first grade and he will be told he can be president, and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather will all smile—because for the first time in our lives we can believe it. For you see, he is Hispanic. And in America that will do.
For many people, the promise of America has never equaled the reality of America. However, since the Obama election that has changed. The integration mythology is closer at hand, and the opportunity to achieve is, after all, more in our individual control than ever before in this nation’s history.
In 1968 I was entering my teenage years living in Black Harlem as one of the few Hispanics in an African-American community. As a student at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, I knew the world of racial strife in a personal way—in the war between minorities in poverty. It was a unique perspective to grow up with.
Young African-American teachers spoke to us about how change was needed in our nation and about the struggles past and present that confronted “us.” As a Latino I was included in the struggle for self-awareness, self-actualization, ethnic power and all the social theories and ideas that ruled that time. In the four decades since then, I have witnessed much that is new and much that is the same. I now live in a country in which the majority of its voters chose a man of color—a verifiable “mixed breed” —to lead our nation as president.
In the America of my youth, a mixed-racial origin was always considered “black.” Today there seems to be an openness to looking at race differently. The conversation and the context in which the race dialogue takes place is one that has changed through intermarriage and the sheer growth of racial and ethnic minorities in our nation. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States may well be regarded as what Malcolm Gladwell would call the tipping point in America’s long striving to reach a comfort with its racial identity.
It is appropriate to reference the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when we examine the meaning of the election of President Barack Obama, but by no means is it the fulfillment of “getting to the promised land.” Yes, this may well be the beginning of a postracial era, but the Obama election may instead be an anomaly or worse—business as usual. Millions of Americans would love to envision Obama’s election as an absolution for the legacy of slavery or at least as a sign of the end of American xenophobia.
But there are millions more who exist in urban and rural poverty as well as those who may have reached economic parity but still suffer from the scourge of racial and ethnic prejudice, and these millions know better than to ascribe so much to a single election. Hispanic hate crimes, racial profiling and crimes against immigrants have been on the rise, especially as our economy has hit hard times. American xenophobia and racial hatred for Hispanic people keep us very far from the Promised Land.
Still, while President Obama’s election has not signified the arrival of Dr. King’s dream, it is a sign that we have taken a significant stride toward the fulfillment of what we have taught all our children. The American integration myth has begun to become a historical truism: in America, even the older generations are beginning to believe that any of their children can become president.
My prayer for President Obama, our nation, and our world is that in January 2017 I can say to my grandson, who will be 11 years old, “Grandson, you have lived to see the greatest president that this nation has ever had. You now have an example to follow. Work hard, Grandson. For some day, you can be president.”
Luis Cortes Jr. is founder and president of Esperanza, a national network of more than 12,000 Hispanic community and faith-based organizations, based in Philadelphia. With a graduate degree in economic development, this ordained American Baptist minister was named by Time magazine as one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals” in 2005. This column is an excerpt from The Audacity of Faith: Christian Leaders Reflect on the Election of Barack Obama, which is available at Judson Press.