The New Mainstream

By Patterson, Orlando | Newsweek, November 10, 2008 | Go to article overview
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The New Mainstream


Patterson, Orlando, Newsweek


Byline: Orlando Patterson; Patterson, author of "The Ordeal of Integration," is professor of sociology at Harvard University.

Obama's win would be the culmination of a process of inclusion that began with Andrew Jackson.

Victory for Barack Obama on Nov. 4 would mark our democracy's triumph over half the problem of race in America. It would underscore the vitality of America's most distinctive and powerful master trend--assimilation, an invincible force that selects from, absorbs and integrates difference, not always kindly, but always to the profit of the nation's mainstream. But an Obama win would also highlight the stark paradox that is the other half of our racial problem: while black Americans have been fully incorporated into the nation's public life, they continue to be cut off from the private life of other Americans, a separation that accounts in good measure for blacks' besetting socioeconomic problems.

How did we arrive at this strange racial pass? Blacks have always figured in a complex way into the progress of American democracy. Slavery, under which they suffered for nearly two thirds of their history in America, was a brutal form of exclusion. The slave was the quintessential outsider: he was not, and could not be, a citizen participating in the public sphere, nor could he belong to the community, family or formal culture of the master class.

Ironically, this double exclusion facilitated the growth of democracy in America as well as the assimilation of its white immigrants. Democracy emerged first--not accidentally--in the Colonial slave South precisely because slavery encouraged a deep bond of racial solidarity among all classes of whites: we-the-people, white and free, were contrasted to the outsiders, domestic enemies, black and unfree. The black presence gave value to whiteness, a positional good eagerly embraced by immigrants who poured into the new nation during the 19th century. However little these newcomers had in common when they were in Europe, on these shores they discovered that they shared one precious thing--their whiteness, which is to say, their non-blackness, and the absence of the stain of slavery. That helped to forge a new identity and a vital bond in the great and growing republic.

The Civil War and emancipation was the nation's first great attempt to overcome this tragic racial contradiction. But abolition merely freed individual slaves from their masters. It did not abolish the culture of slavery, with its emphasis on the public and private exclusion of blacks. To the contrary, the Jim Crow system that replaced slavery legally reinforced and institutionalized the double exclusion of ex-slaves and their descendants.

The 20th-century political struggles of blacks that culminated in the civil-rights revolution marked the second great chapter in the liberation and incorporation of black Americans. Its achievements were extraordinary: in less than a generation the entire institutional fabric of Jim Crow was dismantled; blacks achieved legal equality and access to the nation's educational and political system. White racial attitudes underwent a profound change, not only in the rejection of notions of racial inferiority by the great majority, but in the acknowledgment of blacks as an integral part of the nation's body politic. The rise of a black middle class, the integration of the military and the remarkable role of blacks in the nation's cultural life--areas of which they came to dominate--were all part of this process. Nowhere was it more pronounced, however, than in the rapid ascent of blacks at all levels of American political life. Obama's election would be the denouement of this astonishing process.

An Obama victory would mark, further, the completion of the process of mass democratic inclusion that began with the presidency of Andrew Jackson, another second-generation orphan, who came out of nowhere to lay the foundations of male, white suffrage on a historically unprecedented scale.

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