Birthing Pains and the Emergence of a New Social Narrative

Beverly Daniel Tatum considers why, as so many students rejoice in the election of Barack Obama, some campuses are experiencing racial incidents linked to the election.

November 13, 2008

I spent Election Night with hundreds of students gathered at Spelman College, along with faculty, staff, administrators, alumnae, and city leaders to await the results of our historic presidential election. It was a remarkable evening in which we collectively reflected on the achievements of the past, the success of the present, and the hopes for the future.

Civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery powerfully described the 2008 election process as a “transformational moment in which the United States is being reborn,” a moment in which the politics of fear and division was giving way to the politics of hope and inclusion. When the announcement of Sen. Barack Obama’s victory came, the cheers and tears in the swell of the largely African-American crowd at Spelman were mirrored in the faces captured by news broadcasters at the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational gatherings in Grant Park in Chicago, Times Square in New York, and at the gates of the White House in Washington. Surely it was a night to remember. Regardless of political affiliation, we can all take pride in the high level of student engagement in this year’s election and relish the social significance to this and every generation of the success of President-elect Obama, the first African-American man to overcome this most symbolic of racial barriers, just 40 years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his dream that one day his children – Barack Obama’s generation – would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

According to a recent Gallup poll reported in the weekend edition of USA Today, most Americans (67 percent) do indeed express pride in this collective accomplishment. Even those who did not vote for Obama indicated their excitement about the advance in race relations that his victory represents, recognizing that he was able to garner support from every region in the country. But from the beginning of his campaign, it was the Millennial generation (perhaps forever now to be known as Generation O) that provided a surge ofsupport, voting 2-1 in his favor in the election, and turning out in high numbers for him early in the primaries, before he achieved front-runner status.

Despite the widespread pro-Obama activism among very diverse groups of college students, several ugly campus incidents just before and after the election stand in stark contrast to the rising spirit of racial unification. The hanging of an effigy of Barack Obama at the University of Kentucky, the appearance of a noose on a tree at Baylor University, the dumping of a dead bear plastered with Obama posters at Western Carolina University and the post-election Facebook posting by a University of Texas at Austin student of a call for “all the hunters to gather up, we have a #$%&er in the white house” are just four which all hearken back to a time of overt racial violence and hatred. How can such incidents be understood at this transformative moment?

Are they simply, as some have suggested, random adolescent pranks without racial or political motivation? Certainly immature thoughtlessness shaped by a lifetime of exposure to stereotypical images and cultural messages that reinforce notions of white supremacy and black inferiority is part of the explanation. But history suggests that there is more to it than that. In every period of great social change, there has been a backlash – often violent – in response.

A shifting paradigm generates anxiety – even psychological threat – for those who feel the basic assumptions of society changing in ways they can no longer predict. Twenty-seven percent of the recent Gallup poll respondents said the results of the election “frightened” them. Some of that fear is perhaps related to disagreement with Obama’s policies or related concerns. But for some small segment, perhaps like those involved in the campus incidents, the fear may be related to an unvoiced and maybe even unconscious recognition that the racial calculus of our society has been changed by the election, a change that threatens the position of privilege white people have occupied for so long. Such a sense of threat can lead to irrational, potentially violent behavior, and of course, the fear of such violence is underscored by the not-so-distant history of brutality and murder which accompanied the struggle for civil rights (including voting rights) in our nation. Such acts are like severe birthing pains – painful contractions which no one wants – yet they are signs of something new emerging.

Certainly the election of 2008 changed a fundamental narrative in American culture. That narrative has been replayed on television and in movies and in politics throughout all of our lives. It can be summed up in this way: In a heroic struggle, after all the twists and turns of the plot line, the white guy (usually the blond) wins. The black guy, if there is one, is usually eliminated from the story before the end. Today the story has a new ending. We can no longer predict the winner based on race (and perhaps, soon, not even on gender.) The election of 2008 and the victory of Barack Obama mean that anyone with talent, drive and a great game plan can win. That new possibility makes for a much better story and a much better society.

Yet as we collectively get used to the new narrative, how should we respond to what I interpret as campus expressions of fear? We need to seize the teachable moment. Illuminate the pattern of violence associated with movements of social change, so when incidents threatening in tone and content occur, they can be understood by all in a meaningful social and historical context. Maintain a posture in which hateful incidents are never allowed to take place unchallenged – and provide opportunities for more speech, more dialogue about how various groups of students are experiencing the social changes we are all witnessing. Lift up the power of cross-racial coalitions, a power we have just witnessed in the election of Barack Obama. We should not rush past the significance of the great example of effective team building across lines of difference that we have just witnessed. It is a powerful example of 21st century leadership, one too rarely seen in our history but essential for our future. We should use it fully as a model for our students. Something new was born on Election Night. We have the responsibility and opportunity to nurture it on our campuses.


Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College. Her books include Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.


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