In early 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, the Georgia politician Henry Benning appealed to the Virginia Secession Convention to join the Confederate cause. In making his case, he denounced the “Black Republican party” of President Abraham Lincoln, arguing that his election portended “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.” The predicted envelopment surely took longer than he thought, but by 2008, Benning looked like Nostradamus. After the black governors, the black legislators, the integrated juries, Benning’s great phantom—“black everything”—took human form in the country’s 44th president, Barack Obama. […]
You could be forgiven for looking at African American history as a long catalog of failure. In the black community, it is a common ritual to deride individual shortcomings, and their effect on African American prospects. The men aren’t doing enough. The women are having too many babies. The babies are having babies. Their pants are falling off their backsides. But November’s electoral math is clear—African Americans didn’t just vote in 2012, they voted at a higher rate than the general population.
The history of black citizenship had, until now, been dominated by violence, terrorism, and legal maneuvering designed to strip African Americans of as many privileges—jury service, gun ownership, land ownership, voting—as possible. Obama’s reelection repudiates that history, and shows the power of a fully vested black citizenry. Martin Luther King Jr. did not create the civil-rights movement any more than Malcolm X created black pride. And the wave that brought Obama to power precedes him: the black-white voting gap narrowed substantially back in 1996, before he was even a state legislator. The narrowing gap is not the work of black messiahs, but of many black individuals.
The second chapter of the Obama presidency begins exactly a century and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect. Much like the proclamation, the Obama presidency has been a study in understated and reluctant radicalism. The proclamation freed no slaves in those lands loyal to Lincoln and was issued only after more-moderate means failed. Yet Lincoln’s order transformed a war for union into a war for abolition, and in so doing put the country on a road to broad citizenship for its pariah class. The 2012 election ranks among the greatest milestones along that road. We are not yet in the era of post-racialism. But the time of “black everything” is surely upon us.