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Commentary on Obama and McCain: The power of words

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 6, 2008 - America can change. This much is true. It was evident in the reflections of both candidates. Sen. Barack Obama called for a renewed sense of unity, accountability and self-reliance. His speech in Chicago was a call to action for all Americans to join together. The tracing of the life of Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old voter, was poignant and displayed the shape and stride of our history.

The speeches provided a glimpse into the tenor of both campaigns. I say campaigns, because this critique goes beyond the men who verbalized the messages. Essentially, both men aimed to inspire our nation to persevere in the face of tough times. However, the way they went about it differed drastically. Obama spoke of unity and attributed his win to the voices of all Americans: "young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled." He used the opportunity to expand the reach of his achievement beyond himself and his race.

Sen. John McCain's post-election message was more narrow, suggesting Obama won "by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president." He went on to say, "This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight."

McCain limits the significance of Obama's win to African Americans. Furthermore, he seems to suggest that the reason for the win was Obama's ability to inspire the "wrongly" disenfranchised. The problem with this rhetoric is that (1) it is not statistically possible for Obama to have won with that sole voting block, therefore McCain's comments fail to recognize the range of demographics of Obama supporters. And (2) it fails to acknowledge the relevance that Obama's win has for each and every one of us.

Part of me believes that McCain did not intend for his words to be perceived in this way. However, he went on to say, "Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth." This leads me to think that he is not simply complimenting Obama on his win but rather putting on notice the Michelle Obamas and Rev. Jeremiah Wrights who speak out against the injustices of our nation. It seemed a direct challenge to anyone who might critique our nation, because in doing so they would appear ungrateful.

I felt McCain's comments suggested that being critical of our nation and proud of it are mutually exclusive. That claim is false and counterproductive. We improved as a nation because we had courage enough to face what needed to changed rather than remain blindly loyal to false and contradictory ideals.

Obama's election does not instantly change the state of the union. His win provides a great opportunity for reconciliation and coalition building, but it does not make racism, and injustice in general, non-issues.

If we recognize that issues of injustice happen on an institutional, cultural and individual level, it is clear that symbolically Obama's presidency is a major achievement. However, it alone does not change the systematic disadvantages in education; it does not abolish the negative stereotypes of people of color in the media; and it does not limit the individual actions of hatemongers. Despite the historic occasion, we have much work to do.

It is essential that, as we move forward in unity, we be accountable to each other as American citizens. That will require each citizen to do his or her part, but also we a nation must be honest about the equality of opportunity that we uphold as an ideal. While we should not get caught up in what is wrong with our country and lose sight of our progress, it should be clear that we can cherish our American citizenship without being blind to its injustices.

I think the spirit of the candidates' words as the results were known paralleled the spirit of the campaigns and gave us a sense of how Obama succeeded in blurring lines of division and reaching out to ultimately win the race.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks

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