“Tonight Freedom Rings!”
Reverend Bernice A. King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd on August 28, echoing her father’s epochal “I Have a Dream” speech given 45 years before. And now the flocks gathered at Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High stadium would witness a giant step toward that dream’s realization in the historic nomination of Barack Obama. “This is one of the nation’s greatest defining moments,” she told the roaring audience.
The 85,000-plus people who gathered to hear Barack Obama accept his nomination as the Democratic Party’s first black presidential candidate were a rippling, multihued cloth of humanity—people of all faiths, colors, and generations in rapt anticipation, shedding tears of joy as the sun set over the snow- capped Rockies. But it was more than just a powerful, emotional gathering. It was the outline of a new American majority.
Backstage, as The Black Eyed Peas leader William “will.i.am” Adams prepared to step onstage to perform “Yes We Can” with John Legend and the Agape Choir—a song that, like the candidate it celebrated, seemed to emerge from nowhere to sound a note of idealism in a time of cynicism and strife—he was thinking about his old neighborhood.
In the projects where he was raised—the two-story Estrada Courts in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles—there’s a famous mural of Che Guevara pointing straight at you like Uncle Sam. The graffiti-style words next to Che read WE ARE NOT A MINORITY!! In Obama, Will saw a candidate who reflected his reality. “Obama is probably the first mirror of America,” he said. “The presidents we’ve had before, they’re still portraits that were painted a long time ago.”
People of color are now a majority in forerunner states like California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii. More than two in five Americans under the age of 18 are nonwhite. Census data project that the United States could become majority-minority by 2042, a full eight years earlier than previously expected.
Thanks to hip hop, American popular culture has been thoroughly, to coin a word, colorized. These are all signs that we may be in the middle of an era of expansive racial change. For some, these signs point to fear. For us, they point to hope.
Rewind back to the bitter cold of this past January, when Iowans under the age of 25 delivered Obama’s margin of victory in that first caucus, jump-starting his historic march to the Democratic nomination. In the 14 most competitive states, young people made up more than half of the 3 million new registered voters. Through the primary season, young voters turned out at almost twice the rate they did in 2000.
Young people, urbanites, progressives, and people of color have been the driving force behind Obama’s presidential run. “Barack Obama owes his nomination, in large part, to the strength of those voters,” says BET News analyst Keli Goff, author of Party Crashing: HowThe Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence (Basic, 2008), “and the strength of people underestimating those voters.”
Forty years have passed since Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy fell to bullets. In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon and American Independent Party candidate George Wallace won 57 percent of the electorate by campaigning for the so- called “Silent Majority,” stirring a white backlash against “student radicals” and “angry negroes.” Since that time, racism and generational fear have been a dependable, winning electoral strategy.
Politicos parsed the “Silent Majority” into demographic slivers to more deeply exploit those fears, a process that continues in coded stereotypes like “hockey moms” and “hard- working Americans.” kind of politics that abandoned and contained inner-city youths. In 1992, Pat Buchanan gave the backlash a new name: “cultural war.” Right-wingers went after the hip hop genera- tion in everything from censorship to policing. Would Bill Clinton have won without his Sister Souljah moment? (Google it.)
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