On a brisk early November evening in 2008, Barack Obama stood before a massive crowd in Chicago's Grant Park and spoke of his improbable victory.
He had that very day been elected president of the United States and this junior senator from Illinois stood looking out over the crowd. The moment was electric, embedded with a rising optimism, the emotions distilling the limitless possibilities that lay ahead. America — despite its history — had elected an African-American president and that fact, with all of its implications, rippled outward, from Chicago across America and around the world.
Obama, in that defining moment, said, "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of red states or blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America. It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve, to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."
Those eloquent words and the encompassing symbolism were unforgettable. For many, it was an election the likes of which they had never experienced. And it was suggested by some that the possibility of a post-racial America had arrived.
But now, looking back, recalling the tangible hope that was voiced by that speech, it is hard not to feel naive. Why was it not self-evident that there were hundreds of thousands of citizens who did not embrace that moment and whose mantra was not "Yes we can!" but "No we won't!"?
In fact, some of those who shook their heads in dismay at Obama's election were both senators and congressmen who met on the very day that Obama was inaugurated, their sole purpose to construct a strategy of obstruction. Every policy suggestion would be met with resistance and an unwillingness to compromise or cooperate on much needed legislation.
What also became evident, with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, was that racism, however latent it may have seemed, still defined us. At tea party rallies, protesting what came to be called Obamacare, racist placards depicting the president in white face with exaggerated red lips were common. Calls for his birth certificate were often prologue to conspiratorial scenarios insisting that the president was a secret Kenyan-born Muslim and not one of "us." He was "them." Donald Trump had people investigating. Republicans equivocated.
The thread of racism was palpable, and the hope for a post-racial America sadly vanished like so much mist in the wind. Clearly, we still had not freed ourselves from our history or from the stark shroud of slavery and Jim Crow. And while the placards have now been put away, we are reminded that the very attitudes that created them are still with us.
Men such as Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling exist in a context. When their clandestine bigotry was revealed, we were reminded once again that our history still haunts us.
With a conviction that was startling and seemingly unrelated, Bundy, whose cattle have grazed on public lands for years sans payment to the feds, opined that "the Negro" race would be better off living under slavery than aborting their young children or putting their young men in jail because "they never learned how to pick cotton." Under slavery, he reasoned, life was better because "they was (sic) able to have their family structure together and the chickens and a garden and the people had something to do." Ah, yes. The bucolic and pastoral tranquility of slavery, where only 10 percent of the 11 million who survived what was called the Middle Passage lived past 50.
Sterling, as it turned out, simply didn't want his trophy girlfriend to bring black men to his NBA basketball games or allow herself to be photographed with "them," giving new meaning to the word irony.
And so President Obama has come to realize that he could not simply put his hand on the arc of history and bend it toward the hope of a better day. Though he has tried. The role race has played in this president's tenure will ultimately be judged by history. But how to fully understand the reflexive resistance of conservatives to policies they themselves once championed?
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.