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Melissa Harris-Perry / Equality / Society

The new normalcy of a black president

01/21/13 01:54 PMUPDATED 09/13/13 08:47 AM

By Jelani Cobb

There was a moment during the inauguration when

my attention shifted from thespectacle of a
president being sworn in, his elegant wife holding
the bible as he tookthe oath of oce to something
far less notable. The National Mall was lled with
citizenswho had come from across the country to
witness this ritual, but those aerial shots fromabove
the mall also revealed crowds notably smaller than
they were four years ago. Thetruth, as always, is in
the numbers. Visitors to the Brown v. Board of Education National
Historic Site watch a broadcast of the inauguration of
Despite relatively warm weather and signs that the
President Barack Obama Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, in...AP
nation is slowly emerging fromits economic
Photo/Charlie Riedel
doldrums the number of attendees today was only
about a third as large asthe throng that braved
arctic temperatures to witness the 2009 inauguration. Thecynical perspective would see those numbers
as a barometer for the presidents fallingappeal, a reection of his diminished electoral standing or
feeble mandate. But I sawthose smaller crowds as a signpost of progress: weve reached a point where
a blackpresidency is normal enough that large numbers of us can blow o his inauguration.

This time four years ago I arrived on the national mall at 5 a.m. I huddled against thecold with complete
strangers for seven hours for a single reason: to be able to tellmy grandchildren I saw the rst black
president sworn in. Today, after giving seriousconsideration to a last-minute trip to the nations capital, I
watched it on television. Thatdecision conjured memories of my parents telling me about the era when
they wouldrush home any time there was an African American on television. Nat King Colesshort-lived
variety show was required viewing not simply because he was a talentedentertainer but because a black
entertainer on TV represented a kind of success byproxy for all of us.

President Obamas legacy is inescapably tied to the history of race inthis country. A century from now
discussions of his presidency will likely still be prefacedby the words rst black. Race has long been
the axis around which a good deal of ournational history revolves. But if anything, the diminished
numbers on the mall suggestthat we have the capacity to think of him beyond those terms.

Were this ction, the inauguration of a black president on the day we ocially celebrateMartin Luther
King Jr. Day would seem too heavy-handed to be credible. Yet it is signicantin ways we have yet to
consider. Throughout the 2008 race black support for Obamawas frequently dismissed as simple racial
allegiance while white support was commonlymaligned as liberal guilt or an attempt to purchase
absolution for racism at the ballotbox. The story was never that simple: racial allegiance failed to
generate much blacksupport for Al Sharpton, Alan Keyes, Shirley Chisholm or other black
presidentialcandidacies. And during his historic 1984 presidential campaign Jesse Jackson failedto
garner the endorsements of black leadershipeven many of those whod fought inthe trenches of the
civil rights movement with him. Few considered that the content ofObamas character was far more
important than the color of his skin for black votersduring the 2008 election.

During the 2012 election, strategists suspected that the novelty of electing a black voterhad worn o
and we could expect diminished turnout across the board but especiallyamong black voters. Yet we saw
record turnout in communities of color on Election Day.That fewer of those people made the trip to
Washington D.C. suggests they were thinkingabout their interests, not symbolism, in the voting booth.In
the next four years those voters will expect their president to address immigration,climate change, the
lagging recovery among blacks and Latinos and the menace of gunviolence in our cities. The fact that
hes black will not exactly be an afterthought but it willmatter far less than his actual accomplishments.

Symbolism fades; accomplishmentsendure. That might not have been the change most of us anticipated
four years ago butit could well be the most important.

Jelani Cobb is author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress. For more
on the president and race, see the discussion below from Sundays Melissa Harris-Perry.

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