America's First Black President: What If, What Now?

Sen. Barack Obama's historic win is causing many to ponder what impact his presidency will have on American society. Earlier in the campaign, conservative radio host and newspaper columnist Armstrong Williams confessed that he was somewhat conflicted — politically and culturally — about whether or not to support Obama's candidacy. Armstrong talks about his feelings now that Obama is the president-elect in a conversation with Michel, journalist Richard Rodriguez and writer Tim Wise.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, after a historic election night, we speak with two icons of the Civil Rights Movement, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and former NAACP chair Myrlie Evers-Williams, about how far America has come and their hopes for the future.

But first, we've been asking, what if? What if America were to elect a black president? During the last several weeks, Tell Me More has asked that question of a wide variety of commentators, artists, and political leaders and other thinkers. What could it mean for our culture, our politics, the way we think about our country? But today, with Obama set to become the 44th president of the United States, the question is, what now? Has Obama's success changed the story of race and identity in this country?

To begin answering that question, we are welcoming back several guests who we've spoken with during the campaign season, radio host and syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams. Also with us is writer Richard Rodriguez, the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America," and ctivist and writer Tim Wise, the author of "White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son." I welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD RODRIGUEZ (Activist; Author, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America"): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, I want to get some impressions from each of you about your initial reactions to the election results. And Armstrong, I'm going to start with you because earlier this year, you were very public about your dilemma. You told NPR that Barack Obama's candidacy posed a dilemma for you, and this is what you said:

Mr. ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS (Syndicated Columnist, Media Pundit): So many conservatives who just happen to be black see it as a dilemma because they are wondering, what are they going to tell their children and grandchildren 20 years from now when they had the chance in American history, which is rare, has never happened before, to pull the lever.

MARTIN: So, African-American, conservative, how did you resolve that dilemma for yourself?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, actually, I was very proud of my vote. I was the first in line at 5:02 a.m. yesterday morning. And I just, you know, I watched this unfold. It should have come to the surprise of no one that Senator Barack Obama was elected. The Republican brand is severely damaged. They talk about conservative values and yet, you know, some of their members ended up in jail, many had to resign, many had to leave in shame, and Americans ushered in a new era.

I think Senator - I think this entire presidential race has been about race, but in a different way. I think people like the progress that America has made, but certainly, they did not vote for Senator Barack Obama because he's black. Black people always support the Democratic candidate, about 92 percent or more. I think what happened this time, he had the superior intellect. He lacked the experience. There's much that we don't know about him, stuff that I continue to question.

But I think, in the end, America made the change, not for the world, but itself domestically. They want to give him a chance to navigate us through this economic crisis, bring to closure these two wars that we're fighting abroad. And I could not be more proud of my country and the progress and example that we've set.

And it's that we are truly the country, I feel, not just the lone superpower in the world, but there's no other place in Europe where a Justice Clarence Thomas, a Condoleezza Rice, a Colin Powell, and now President-elect Barack Obama has any possibility arising to this place and with their countrymen to become who they are today. And we have to celebrate America as much as we criticize her. She is still a melting pot for all to come.

MARTIN: Well, you're not under subpoena here, but can I ask you one more time, what did you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I...

MARTIN: What did you decide to do?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Let me just say since No Child Left Behind, Michel, and you understand that area in my life, I decided to become a journalist. I want to be fair. I want to be balanced. I don't think journalists should be in the business of revealing a candidate that they voted for. And so, like I said, I'm very pleased with my vote, and I can sleep very well at night.

MARTIN: All right. Richard Rodriguez, what are your thoughts?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, what are my feelings is more the point. I must tell you that I started bawling in my hotel room here in Houston last night. And I just felt both the moment and its grandeur, but also, you know, this is insufficient also as a way to conclude this horrendous history against - of Americans against African-Americans. The history of racism doesn't come to an end with this election and yet, there was this moment.

I have an ambivalence about Barack Obama as a politician, but I think now, he was shrewd enough to know not to make this race about what it was about, which is about race, and that, in some way, that his victory last night, which every - all the correspondents were going on about the first African-American president.

This is not the way he ran. He ran on issues, and this was the shadow issue. This was his brilliance. But this also suggests that the anxiety many Americans feel on race, I think, persists, and that it will take a long time to resolve itself. I was very proud of the Hispanic vote, incidentally.

MARTIN: Tim, I'm going to get to you in just a minute. But, Richard Rodriguez, many people say this election was not about race. It was about the economy.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, that's what we were officially voting on. The economy, I think, was the foremost, and Iraq and health issues and terrorism. But isn't it interesting that, at that moment, at 11 o'clock here in Texas, when the West Coast voted, that we all understood what the moment was, that this was - we had broken some curse in America, and this is what we are thinking, and this is what the world is thinking this morning, that some new chapter has begun.

MARTIN: Tim Wise, this election opened up some candid and sometimes painful conversations about race, of gender, class and religion. Senator McCain alluded to at least the racial part of the conversation in his speech last night. I want to play a short clip from the concession speech of Arizona Senator John McCain. Here it is.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is an historic election. And I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Senator Obama believes that, too.

MARTIN: Tim Wise, where do you think this conversation goes now?

Mr. TIM WISE (Author, "White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son"): Well, that's going to be very much up to us. The thing that concerns me a little bit about Senator McCain's statement there is that, you know, this isn't just a moment for African-American folk. It's not just a moment for people of color.

One of the things that we haven't done a very good job of in this country - for those of us who are white, in particular, I think it's had an effect - is we have not claimed and reclaimed the history of white ally-ship and anti-racist ally-ship going back several hundred years to the colonies, to the abolition movement, to the civil rights struggle. And so...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I can't... Tim Wise? Tim Wise? We seem to have lost Tim Wise. And we hope we get him back as soon as possible. Tim Wise?

OK. We're going to go back to Richard Rodriguez, and I want to talk about the fact that your personal story shares some of the same themes as Barack Obama's in terms of straddling two worlds, cultures. You're the son of - if I could use this term - working-class parents. One of his parents was an immigrant. Both of your parents were. You are brown, as you say in your book. You lived and went to schools, some sort of fine schools.

Based on your personal experience, how do you think this will inform Obama's presidency, or will it? And does it change, you think, the way Americans think of themselves, since his personal narrative is so different from the one we are used to hearing?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, this question of mixtures continues to be what interests me most about him. Young people in America are very much interested in multiple selves, of being more than one thing. And Barack Obama is more than one thing. He doesn't play on that sufficiently, it seems to me. And he is, you know, he is weighed down by the long journey of Jim Crow, which establishes the one-drop rule - because he's half black that, therefore, he is all black.

I see him as our first brown president, and I think that the world sees him - increasingly, in many places in the world - I was in France a few weeks ago, and I know the French were looking at him not simply as the African-American president, but as a figure of mixture, as somebody new in the world because they are not dealing with people like this. They are dealing with people who are French and who come to France with a different religion, with a different color.

And that notion of being a multiple self is, I think, his greatest strength. But it's something that he hasn't played to, largely. It is something that he evidences in his physical person and his voice and his biography. But he doesn't play on it sufficiently. And so, that's what I would like him to play out, the fact that he is as much white as he is black.

MARTIN: Tim Wise, we lost you for brief moment there.

Mr. WISE: Yeah.

MARTIN: If you would pick up your thought. You were talking about, in fact, the same thing that Richard Rodriguez was talking about, which is, what does Barack Obama's personal narrative mean, and what might that mean for the racial dialogue in this country, and where it goes from here.

Mr. WISE: Well, it depends on what we make of it. You know, the danger is that we're going to fall into the trap of thinking that Obama's victory means that we've transcended race. It does mean something. And you know, I'm a fairly hardened leftist, but anyone who is cynical about this and doesn't understand the importance of it and isn't moved by the words of John Lewis or the tears of Reverend Jackson in Grant Park last night simply really doesn't have a soul and isn't much use to the liberation struggle.

Whether this ends up being anesthesia or adrenaline is going to be up to the masses of people. Whether we're going to push the conversation forward and demand that individual success has to then be moved further into systemic progress. You know, when Benazir Bhutto became premier of Pakistan, sexism didn't go away there. Nor did it go away in India or Israel, or Great Britain, all of which have had female premiers. There's a larger institutional issue we must address.

And so, we should savor the victory and savor what it means about the potential of our nation and our culture, but then we've got to get back to work on the ground in the community. This is a vindication of community organizing and now is a call for millions of us to get into the community and begin doing that work.

MARTIN: Armstrong Williams, I want to get your take on this one, but I do want to clarify something you said earlier. It is true that African-Americans do tend to favor Democrats, but African-American support for John Kerry four years ago was in the high 80s. So a 96 percent vote for Obama also does represent a new high. But what do you think that this election means for our culture, our racial dialogue?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, Senator Barack Obama biologically may share something, let's say, with what you may consider the black experience. But his mother's white. He has a bigamous father from Kenya. Culturally, really, he has nothing - a little in common with American blacks. His parents were not denied seats on the bus. He was not denied seats on the bus. He was able to go to Harvard and get the best education. So, culturally, Senator Barack Obama, President-elect Obama is more like the American people than any president that has been elected in this country.

I think something happened in this country. Senator John McCain and Governor Palin sort of edged ahead of Senator Barack Obama at one point after the Republican convention, but the tsunami hit, this economic crisis, and Americans became afraid. They became fearful. They began to lose their way of life.

And you know what? Some Americans said, those working class, poor white people that Hillary Clinton said would never support a Barack Obama, they said, forget about this. George Bush has screwed us. I'm losing my way of life. Forget this. They've betrayed us. He may look like me. He may share my values, but I'm not going to trust him anymore.

They forgot about race. They forgot about culture, and the issue became, who's going to take us out of this crisis and make my life better to make sure I don't lose all my savings, my pension, my 401K? And in the end, Senator Barack Obama won because the people believed they needed the change. They did not want to trust the Republicans anymore.

And I think what we're talking about here, people could care less about. They want to know, after President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in on January 20th, what are you going to do about this mortgage crisis, this economic crisis, this credit crisis that's coming? Because I gave you what you asked for. I voted for the change. Now, I'm waiting to see.

MARTIN: I want to ask the other two guests. And I asked the guests earlier. What's his mandate now? Tim Wise, what's his mandate?

Mr. WISE: Well, you know, I don't know exactly the extent of his mandate. I do think that this was clearly, however, a repudiation of the politics of the right. That's for sure. He certainly has a mandate to go on the offensive against the kind of rollback of both economic, educational, and civil rights protections and environmental protections that we've seen in the past eight years. That's for sure.

But I think the bigger mandate - and this is something I think President-elect Obama would himself say; in fact, he alluded to it last night - is that the real mandate is for the people. We, the people, have got to get out and do the work to make whatever hope we have invested in him and whatever change we expect to come from him actually happen. We cannot afford to allow it to rest in his hands.

No president, it doesn't matter who they are, it doesn't matter whether they are on the left or the right or in the center, it doesn't matter which party, is capable of moving the nation forward when we face so many of the struggles that Armstrong alluded to, and that's going to be up to us. We're going to have to get out and demand the change in our own communities. We are going to have to hold President-elect Obama accountable, the Senate and the House accountable, for moving the nation forward on what I hope will be a progressive and really quite transformative social and economic agenda.

MARTIN: Richard Rodriguez, final thought from you.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Just more of the same. I think that he has to be president of all of us, as he was saying last night. But also, just to echo something that Armstrong was saying, I don't think Hispanics voted for Barack Obama so much as they voted against the Republican Party. The xenophobia, and particularly the anti-Hispanic xenophobia that the Republicans engaged in, particularly on talk radio, which veered into a vein that hasn't been heard for several decades in America.

Hispanics had been moving culturally toward the Republicans, and George Bush was, in many ways, a very sympathetic figure to many Hispanics. McCain was also. But the antipathy now toward the Republican Party by Hispanics led them to Barack Obama. It was not so much of a Barack Obama vote, but it was an anti-Republican Party vote.

MARTIN: And to be continued. I think we should get this group back again after the inauguration and see what we think then. Author and journalist Richard Rodriguez joined us by phone from Houston, Texas. Writer and anti-racism activist Tim Wise spoke to us from Nashville, Tennessee. And radio and television host and syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Gentlemen, I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

Mr. WISE: Thank you.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.

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