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Life Lessons

From Cynicism to Hope—One Man's Journey

Author Roger Wilkins changed his mind about race in America after the presidential election—and for that, he gives credit to his daughter.

Roger Wilkins on Hope and Obama

President Obama's victory resonated in a myriad of ways for different generations. — Photo by Jeff Gentner/AP Photo

This was a family history that inspired Elizabeth deeply, but it was a history of struggle, setbacks, and psychic abuse she had not experienced. Thus, we differed about Obama's candidacy. I simply said, "No chance. The man's been in the Senate for 15 minutes, and white people just aren't going to vote for a new black guy―and certainly not in the numbers that would make him a serious candidate." But Elizabeth believed, fervently, that when people present themselves honestly, with wisdom and passion, they will be judged on their merits. She believed Obama, a brilliant, tenacious, cool tactician with compassion for the poor and energy to lead, would be judged for those qualities, and that his biracial background might even be a plus―a symbol of hope, the embodiment of divided worlds coming together. Yet true to her character, Elizabeth asked wise friends what they thought, too, and she quickly learned her idealism had not been totally misplaced. One white mentor told her about his 80-year-old mother who had never held "enlightened" racial views but who was ecstatic about the Obama candidacy and was giving strong support because she wanted to feel a new pride in her country. And so when Elizabeth asked me whether she should keep the good job she had with a major union or join the Obama campaign, I had the wit to reply: "Kid, this is your generation's Selma, and you dare not miss it."

Despite that advice, I didn't really believe in Obama's possibilities until he won the Iowa caucuses―and even then I was still struggling mightily to comprehend how the White House could be his for the taking. Looking at the very capable candidate, I thought back to the scores of highly intelligent black men and women I'd known over my lifetime who never even passed Go because whites did not believe they could do serious work. I thought about how my own credentials as a professional had come into question in the 1970s. I'd been hired as an editorial writer forThe New York Times, and after a couple of months on the job, the wife of a colleague shared that her husband was relieved I was proving to be "the real thing"―not the incompetent affirmative action hire he suspected I was, despite a glittering journalistic history. The exchange highlighted the ignorance, fears, and elitism that were still the baggage of a divided nation. And it was baggage I feared would weigh down the Obama campaign and make it founder.

But it was baggage Elizabeth did not want, or need, to carry. Her belief in the promise of the country, and of the electorate, was firm and enthusiastic. So, too, was the belief of tens of thousands of others in her generation―a multiracial, multiethnic lot that crossed class lines―who stormed the country and helped spread this optimism to others. After the Iowa caucuses, I caught that fire. With every primary victory by Obama, I came to see what they saw―that the tide was turning, that whites of all ages who'd been waiting for a strong and inspiring candidateanda way to help the country rise above its past were happy to have this choice; that blacks who had never quite felt valued in their own land could finally cast away their hidden shame. But foremost I saw once again that change requires hard work and a steady, abiding commitment to the republic―just as it always has.

With every primary victory I saw that the tide was turning.

Elizabeth knew that, of course. Waking from her slumber on that long ride from Detroit, she told me, to my surprise, that her civic spirit had come from her mother and me and from her ancestors, and that it had been the ultimate gift. So maybe the gift Americans can give Obama is their active, informed engagement on the issues he will be wrestling with in the White House. It is activism, after all, that keeps a republic strong―Ben Franklin knew that more than two centuries ago. Our charge today is that we not forget, and to pass that spirit to our youth.

I am reminded of a civics project Elizabeth interviewed me for when she was age ten or so. At the end of our recorded conversation, she asked whether I had "any advice for kids now and in the future."

"I think that decency and justice have to be worked for and fought for all the time," I responded. "It's important for Americans to understand that the political rights we're granted under the Constitution are meant to be used. You have to vote, get involved in making your neighborhood a better place, support education, fair housing, and good medical care; maybe even run for office. If you think a law is unfair, write to your congressman, call the White House."

"You can do that?" Elizabeth asked.

"You can do that."

Historian and journalist Roger Wilkins is professor emeritus at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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