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It was a carnival par excellence, a colourful mela American style. The impressive crowd that thronged Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House right up to Capitol Hill, came not just to see Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, being sworn in for a second term as the 44th US President in the 57th inauguration, but to witness the second coming of history. To celebrate. To feel empowered.
There were more coloured people in the gathering—so representative of the coalition of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women and youth that gave Obama such an overwhelming victory. Three-fourths of Indian-origin Americans—they now number over three million—voted for him too. Why did they flock to the public inauguration in such large numbers this time as well? “Who knows when we will have another black president?” explained Patricia Leak from Raleigh, North Carolina. A black woman who met her husband at Obama’s inauguration four years ago, Patricia brought along four nieces on the bus all the way from Raleigh.
Obama, the son of a black Muslim Kenyan father and a white American mother, used two Bibles—the ones owned by Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr—for the swearing-in. This was symbolic of the struggle for equality in America, beginning with Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves 150 years ago, to King’s civil rights movement, which reached a crescendo with his famous “I have a dream” speech delivered here 50 years ago, and ultimately to Obama becoming the first black president. A scenario long deemed unlikely given the wounds left by 487 years of African American history. No wonder Obama is aware of the burden US race relations history has placed on him. He said in his inaugural address, “What binds this nation together is not the colours of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
What do race relations mean in today’s America? Quite something new actually. Nearly 14 million white and black American are living together as spouses, partners or same-sex couples. Under five per cent of the American population. “But,” says sociologist Dan Lichter of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, “this might be evidence that some of the historical boundaries that separate the races are breaking down.” Last February, a Pew Research Center study showed 83 per cent of Americans were for blacks and whites dating each other! Three-fourths of those surveyed were white.
Obama went on, “The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. And for more than 200 years we have. Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave, and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together.”
Since he does not have to worry about any more elections, analysts expect him to be more decisive and tough to ensure he can execute his plans for America’s future and secure his place in its history and be ranked alongside Lincoln and King as champions of equality for all Americans. Though there is grumbling aplenty about Obama’s somewhat patchy record in office, the satisfied outnumber the dissenters. He ended the Iraq war and will pull out the 68,000 American troops left in Afghanistan next year. The two wars have cost a staggering $1.4 trillion since 2001. Think of what the money saved by ending two costly wars will do for the economy!
There have been more than a 100 court cases questioning Obama’s place of birth, his religion and his eligibility to be president. No judge has bought into the crazy theories, but between a tenth and a fifth of the population, according to most polls, still believe Obama is a Muslim, foreign-born or a socialist. Some are still searching for ways to have the president declared illegitimate! And what does an African American president mean for the other coloured communities? I ask Indian ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, “What are the chances of an Indian American occupying the White House, say by 2050?” She smiles and quips, “Why not?”
(Former Onlooker and India Today editor S. Venkat Narayan is a globally known broadcaster)