The first time I saw the Obama gear, I knew it had begun. I do not mean the official campaign paraphernalia. I'm talking about the wares hawked here in Harlem, the black tees sold in sizes up to 5XL, with Barack Obama's head slightly out of proportion. I bought mine on Lenox and 125th--a mustard number with Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama juxtaposed underneath the words ALPHA and OMEGA. That's when I smelled the air and understood that Obama was running not simply to be President but also to be the next head chiseled on the face of the imaginary black Mount Rushmore. That's when I knew, for the first time in my life, that it would be a good year to be black.
Consider this fact: the most famous black man in America isn't dribbling a ball or clutching a microphone. He has no prison record. He has not built a career on four-letter words. So much of our blues boils down to CNN: you go home, you cut on the TV, and always you're reduced to skyrocketing murder rates, singers on trial for defiling children and overvalued athletes making it rain. All black news is bad news, and lately we've just been very tired.
But for more than a year now, we have been treated to a p.r. campaign for our side of the tracks. There is what the world sees in Obama, and then there is what we see. Words like hope, change and progress might seem like naive campaign sloganeering in a dark age. But think of the way those words ring for a people whose forebears marched into billy clubs and dogs, whose ancestors fled north by starlight, feeling the moss on the backs of trees. The sight of the Obama family onstage that first night in Denver was similarly mind-blowing, an image of black families that television so rarely provides. With its quiet class and agility--the beaming beautiful wife, the waving kids--this campaign has confirmed us, assured us that we are more than just a problem.
Compared with all that, an Obama win would be just a start. Surely the next day we would wake up with the scoreboard still the same. Our life spans would still be shorter, our prison rolls longer and our net worths lower than the average American's. But the psychic impact could be enormous. Young blacks, like me, in particular lived with the burden of having dropped the ball that the civil rights generation advanced. Obama is our particular vindication, in that he can't win without the votes of young blacks and in his specific mannerisms. He is the start of our contribution to the fight.
But what if Obama, our vessel of what is best in us, comes up short? What if Obama loses? What will it mean for us all?
African Americans have had to cope with disappointment since the days of slavery. With that come certain defense mechanisms, ways of guarding ourselves against disappointment. Frankly, I was perfectly fine with the idea of never seeing a black President in my lifetime. When Obama entered the race, any expectations we had were negative. We started to see the light in Iowa, but even as his support became a popular movement, there was always a kind of disbelief in the idea that America would really vote for a black man. We'd like to be wrong, but we think we're right. There is no sense in the black community of the kind of entitlement to the presidency felt by some Hillary Clinton supporters. Many of them expressed shock at the sort of sexism that greeted her. But very few black people were shocked that Michelle Obama was called a "baby mama" or that GOP Congressmen seem to have a penchant for referring to Obama as "boy" and "uppity."
That's why an Obama defeat would be met with resignation more than rage. No one is more tired of talking about racism than black people. The disenchantment with protest politics, the fatigue from refighting old battles over school integration and affirmative action, even the rise of politicians like Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick point to a shift in the disposition of black America. The big issues of the day aren't so much racial profiling and police brutality as the achievement gap, the incarceration rate and unemployment. The great race conversation has not only decreased in volume; for black people, it's also become much more introverted. At this moment, black America is in the grips of a kind of barbershop conservatism that is more concerned with its own progress than with the attitudes of whites.
So, yes, an Obama defeat would be greeted with a loud sucking of the teeth and a deepening of self-doubt. A loss would be hugely disappointing, and to put it crudely, it would also be more of the same. But it is also true that the biggest change has already taken place. The Obama campaign has been the anti--O.J. trial, a 24-hour ongoing drama about a black man cast not as a problem but, potentially, as the solution.
Coates is a contributing editor for the Atlantic. His memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, was published in May