At the risk of echoing our president-elect’s wife, we’ve never been prouder of our country.
It’s just that simple.
While it remains to be seen if the reality of Barack Obama will be as a transformational figure and not just a historic one, this is a day when all people of good will should be celebrating, because this election makes our national purpose more than an abstract concept for 37 million African-Americans, and by extension, 44.3 million Hispanic-Americans.
In particular, we were heartened by the excitement and sense of new possibilities that were projected from the faces of first-time, young voters and 20-somethings who do in fact believe in the audacity of hope in a political system as flawed and corrupted by special interests as ours.
Those of us here who were college students in the Sixties are hard-wired to default to cynicism and pessimism, and as a result, we had long assumed that the color bar blocking the presidency would never be removed in our lifetimes.
So many people in our generation became politically active as a result of the civil rights movement, and in those years, we often talked about the days when African-Americans could be elected to the U.S. Senate and to the mayor’s office. Thinking back, we can’t remember anyone ever mentioning the presidency, because that simply seemed beyond the realm of possibility.
92 Years In The Making
But, as emotional as this is to those of us whose lives were defined by those turbulent years, it’s absolutely impossible for us to even imagine the emotions of the 92-year-old African-American woman who stood in line next to us in early voting. It was the same sense of anxious possibility that attracted an outpouring of black voters to the polls in Memphis, a blue city in a red state in a blue country.
If this 92-year-old woman was almost trembling with excitement as she prepared to cast her ballot, we only wish that we could have seen her today, the most celebratory day in African-American history since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As people who care deeply about cities, particularly our own, it was a simple decision for us to support President-elect Obama. Many American cities – ignored in federal policy for a decade – are in crisis, and the past decade has been especially cruel to mid-sized metro areas like ours.
We’ve written often about the troubling demographic trends in Memphis – notably increasing poverty that grips almost one in three Memphians and one in two children. In other words, at the precise time that cities like ours needed the resources and help of the federal government, urban issues went to the bottom of their priority list.
It’s been the exercise of the most cynical kind of politics. Although many U.S. cities were approaching collapse, they were seen as Democratic strongholds, so that’s not where the money was sent by the Republican-controlled Congress. And, as more and more red state governors took office, Congress sent more and more block grants to state capitals so governors could then decide how to spend it.
Time after time, proposals for full funding of No Child Left Behind were voted down – lack of money. Programs for expanded health care coverage were turned down – no money. It was the ready answer, but when it came time for war in Iraq, hundreds of billions of dollars materialized, when it came time to subsidize politically-connected industrial sectors, tens of billions of dollars were found and when Wall Street was socialized, all it took was $700 billion.
Confusing Government With Business
To compound problems in cities like ours, the weakening of regulatory agencies left the impression that the purpose of the national government was as a vehicle for corporate wealth and raw capitalism. If Katrina was the dramatic and graphic illustration of how far the federal government had gone astray, it was only the natural exemplar of a reality already understood full well by city mayors: You’re on your own.
Whether by design or by incompetence, President-elect Obama will now shape an agenda that will be limited by the suffocating debt run up by the “charge and spend” Bush Administration. And yet, the base federal government budget of about $2 trillion a year allows room for refocusing some priorities and shifting spending to create a real urban agenda.
In a campaign where cities drew about as much attention as same-sex marriage, the president-elect laid out the first comprehensive plan for cities in more than a decade.