Hope vs. Fear

Michael Wilson

One thing is certain: either Senator Barack Obama’s race will prevent him from being elected president, or it won’t. I wonder about this not just as an African-American citizen and voter, but professionally, as the legislative and political director of a union that endorsed and supports his campaign.

I am caught between the hope and the fear of the generations before and after me.

But this presidential race is particularly personal for me because I am caught between the hope and the fear of the generations before and after me. These generations are not theoretical abstractions or demographic subsets of the electorate; they are my father and my daughter. 

My daughter is the hopeful one. She decided to support Obama for President back in 2007, urging me via a blast e-mail from the campaign to join her at the Obama campaign.” So much for discussion over the family dinner table. 

A gregarious 18-year-old who graduated from a very integrated public school in the Maryland suburbs, she was afforded the opportunity to cast a ballot because state law permits 17-year-olds who turn 18 before a general election to cast primary ballots. I tried to temper her expectations, not wanting her optimism dashed in case her candidate didn’t make it to Maryland. She not only ignored me, she effused confidence and signed up to be an Election Day judge. 

And as we know, despite my professional expertise and fatherly caution, her daughter’s youthful optimism was rewarded. Not only did she cast her first vote for a winning candidate, but Obama swept the state and the region en route to winning the nomination.

Her faith rewarded, her vision confirmed, she expects nothing less than a general election victory. Unburdened by overt segregation and discrimination, why shouldn’t she be filled with hope? If you were an 18-year-old African American voting for the first time, wouldn’t you?

But what if you were her 81-year-old grandfather? My dad is the other side of the coin: fear. He just doesn’t believe that millions of white people will actually vote to make Barack Obama president. Sure, he supports Obama, and he’ll vote for him. But his many decades of experience tell him an Obama victory will be difficult to achieve. 

My father grew up in segregated rural Kentucky and served in the segregated armed forces during World War II. And even though he raised his family in Detroit, he’s always had white friends and participated in integrated institutions, from his United Auto Workers-represented employer to the governing body of the Detroit Presbytery. His five children have followed his and his wife’s lead into professional and skilled trade employment, marriage, and the great middle class.

Still, life in America makes him skeptical. It’s not a particular incident like the assassination of Dr. King or the 1968 riots. It’s just the cumulative impact of watching the country move from Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat Party to George Wallace to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Barack Obama in a single lifetime. It’s also a journey from Hattie McDaniel, Adam Clayton Powell and Jackie Robinson to Oprah Winfrey, Doug Wilder and Venus and Serena Williams.

And what do I think? I have a foot firmly placed in both camps. Having worked numerous campaigns where race was the divisive issue, I know how hard it is to win – much less govern – in such an atmosphere. I also know that this primary season has seen tens of thousands of new voters swarm the Democratic primaries and caucuses in support of Sen. Obama. 

At the end of the day, I can’t pick between my daughter and my father – I just have to work as hard as possible to make Obama’s victory possible. But I also know that my father wants his granddaughter to be victorious, to see her faith rewarded and her hopes uplifted in spite of his own fears. And I’d like to see my father pleasantly surprised.

Michael J. Wilson is director of the department of legislative and political action at United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and chair of Americans for Democratic Action’s labor committee.
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