One year later.
One year after that icy Washington day when Aretha Franklin sang and John Roberts muffed his lines and Barack Obama raised his hand and swore the oath that made him president of the United States, it turns out something fundamental has changed.
It is not the economy, which still struggles toward daylight.
It is not the partisan divide, which still gapes like canyons.
It is not the wars, which grind ceaselessly on.
No, what has changed is us — specifically, the African-American cohort of us. According to a new poll conducted late last year by the Pew Research Center, hope is on the rise in black communities. Thirty-nine percent of blacks say blacks are better off now than they were five years ago. That’s nearly double the 20 percent who felt that way just two years before. And a majority — 53 percent — believe their lives will be better still in the future, up nine percentage points since 2007.
For the last year, people have been asking me whether I thought the election of Barack Obama would materially change things in African America, whether it would inspire a renaissance of achievement and hope. I was always dubious. I always said it was a little simplistic to believe that. I always said he was only one man and that his election, as singular an event as it was, had limited power to re-shape cynicism as deep-rooted and intransigent as that which grips black people.
And apparently, I was wrong. The proof is in the numbers, especially when they are viewed in context.
After all, blacks are still much more likely than whites to see and decry discrimination against them, still much more likely than whites to say the country needs to do more to fulfill its founding promise of equality and justice for all, still much more likely than whites to view law enforcement with deep and abiding cynicism. And yet, on measure after measure — standard of living, satisfaction with their own communities, assessment of relations between blacks and whites — Pew finds the numbers spiking since the rise of Obama.
He has changed our assessment of the possible. For the first time in a long time, optimism grows among us.
For a people whose views have so often been (justifiably) dour and bleak, that is bracing news. And the timing of it is fitting, coming as we mark both Obama’s first year in office and the 24th commemoration of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
For all the difficulties of the journey, for all the challenges that lie yet ahead, we find that we have moved with a steadiness from the grotesque perversion of America in which King lived and died, toward the gleaming redemption of America for which he fought and of which he famously dreamed. From “Whites Only” signs, soldiers guarding public schools, and torchlight glinting off swinging truncheons, to a son of Kenya and Kansas raising his hand and vowing to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.
And you might wonder of what value optimism might have been in bridging that distance, what value it might have for bridging the distance yet to go. Optimism is, after all, just a feeling, ephemeral and insubstantial.
But I submit that it is more. Optimism is fuel for the engine, wind for the wings, the single indispensable element in getting from here to there. So it is good to see it flowering once again in African-American communities, flowering as it has not in too many years. Good to know more of our children are coming of age in homes where they will be taught the future is theirs to mold and the only limitations are the ones they choose to accept.
That portends great things. People who believe they can achieve usually do.