In Us We Trust
Writer and KCET Local blogger Erin Aubry Kaplan wonders what the election of Barack Obama means for black Los Angeles. Kaplan has written about African-American political, economic and cultural issues since 1992. She is currently a contributing editor to the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times, and from 2005 to 2007 was a weekly op-ed columnist — the first black weekly op-ed columnist in the paper’s history.
The first chapter of a new era is all over. On Tuesday, Barack Obama pulled off the presumably impossible with almost embarrassing ease, defeating John McCain to become the first African American president-elect in our country's history. I was at a viewing party in Culver City with a living room full of people who watched the clock and cheered like fans cheer for their team during game 7 of the NBA finals. Of course, this was far more emotional than any sporting event I've ever seen, the happiness at the outcome much more far-reaching. After Obama's acceptance speech, we poured champagne and toasted something I'd never toasted in my adult life, and I'm Obama's age. There are many things I assumed wouldn't happen in my lifetime, and this one was so remote, it wasn't even on the list. I barely knew how to feel.
That ambivalence was both good and strange. Good, because the moment was so unprecedented and frankly unexpected. Strange, because when I thought about what happens next, after the confetti gets swept up and the hosannahs run their course, I came up empty. I should have been full to overflowing, but I wasn't. Quite the opposite. Not that I think President Obama will do nothing; he will certainly do much. But what can this glorious, undeniable symbol of black success actually do for black people? Will anything change for us because he's in office? That's the million-dollar question blacks have been asking each other quietly (we had to, otherwise we would have ruined his chances) for the last two years. Nobody has an answer, and very few seem prepared to hold Obama accountable to one now.
That's the paradox, of course. For lots of people, Obama's ascension to the presidency represents the pinnacle of black success and therefore a satisfying conclusion to the long, troubled history of racial justice in America. I wish that were the case, but the reality is much more complicated. What Obama really represents is the success of black baby boomers who grew up in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights movement and swelled the black educated and middle class to historic numbers. But the larger group of black working-class and poor went nowhere, and in some cases got poorer, in big cities all over the country--Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, L.A. The dichotomy has developed into a crisis that feels permanent in 2008, a crisis that's been hardly offset by the rise of the Oprahs and Colin Powells of the world. Whether Obama can help finally bridge that gap, or even wants to, is the big unknown. Yet I shudder to think of a President Obama touring the smoking ruins of a city wracked by black anger and civil unrest, as George H.W. Bush did here in 1992. There's too much wrong with that picture to even articulate.
How's L.A. doing since '92? Not so great. We've been hearing about haves and have-nots for so long now, we've practically made them census categories. But what's always been less advertised is that African-Americans make up a disturbing percentage of the have-nots, from high-school dropouts to the homeless. Obama getting in office won't change that, not for a while anyway, in L.A. or anywhere else. The morning after the election, I walked around my neighborhood as I usually do and found the atmosphere perfectly unchanged from the day before. What was I expecting to find? I still don't know. But perhaps the mere expectation of finding something different will be the biggest and most significant effect Obama will have on all of us.