Peniel Joseph on the historical significance of Barack Obama's big win

Peniel Joseph is an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies. He will provide additional analysis at a post-election forum on Nov. 6.

Read Joseph's commentary "This could let new black generation reach for the top" in the Evening Standard.

BrandeisNOW: What is the historical significance of Barack Obama’s victory?

Joseph: It’s safe to say it’s a monumental moment in national and really world history. This is off the charts. I think that the campaign did sort of a masterful job of downplaying race, and the candidate did as well. Because we’re still not a nation where somebody of a different racial ethnicity could probably run for president trumpeting that fact and still win, right? We’re still a nation where to get a kind of universal appeal, you have to downplay your individuality. Which is really paradoxical, because universality means that I can be black, I can say I’m black but I can also say I’m proud to be an American.

That being said, the very fact that he is black—we’re going to be transforming the aesthetic of American democracy. And by aesthetic I mean virtually every single thing that he will do from this point on is uncharted territory -the inauguration, the swearing in, State of the Union speeches, press conferences, the first family. You go from Jacqueline Kennedy and that picture and portrait of a first lady to Michelle Obama and the kids.

I think that it shows that there’s a generational shift in the American electorate. Meaning that on one level, there are millions of young people who are into the system. And it really does a lot to stem global criticism of the United States as sort of this belligerent super power that’s not quite as interested in diversity and acceptance and tolerance as advertised. There’s always been a paradox between Democratic values preached in the country and the way in which they are practiced. I think this is a watershed event for American democracy.

And then in terms of African-Americans, this is hugely significant because obviously when we think about African-Americans, the relationship with American democracy has always been star-crossed because of racial slavery. This is a country that was founded in slavery that expresses Democratic ideas, so that’s always been a paradox. And slavery doesn’t end until 1865. And I think what’s interesting is that we’re going to see a kind of culmination of that first reconstruction period because people are going to give a lot of parallels between Obama and civil rights. But really the nation’s first black elected officials really go back to the late 19th century, starting at the 1860s.

So what’s really fascinating in terms of Obama is that in 43 years we’ve gone from a lack of voting rights to this sort of audacious run for the White House that was not only taken seriously but also resulted in him winning the election. It’s a stunning story.

BrandeisNOW: Now that we’ve looked back, it’s time to look forward. What do you expect from an Obama presidency?

Joseph: Well I think the big thing that most Americans expect from an Obama presidency is in some practical way a revitalization of the national spirit. But also, when we think about the New Deal and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Obama is aiming to create a new deal that talks about the economy and energy from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. But I think the public is also expecting a kind of president who is very confident, very optimistic and has this unbridled ability to bring together different groups and different perspectives just by his sheer will power and iconography. I think they’re expecting a lot, and it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of policies are proposed in the first couple of days. I expect that the euphoria around Obama’s victory is so unprecedented and unbridled that in his first 100 days he should be able to probably do more than any president has done in quite a long time. It may be since 1933 and Roosevelt. So I think because of his optimism and hope people are expecting an absolute change in the status quo.

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