Why the US presidency is still a Black and White issue

Obama's time has come, but that doesn't mean everyone is ready

When people ask me why it is such a huge deal that tomorrow the United States will elect its first non-white president, I tell them about my grandparents.

Eleanor and Lloyd Lathrop were good people and typical of their generation in many ways. They worked hard (my grandfather as a construction worker, my grandmother as a nurse and cook and then full-time mother), didn't complain about their taxes, respected the environment but believed natural resources were ultimately there for them to use as they saw fit, always bought American cars, were honest, generous, and never took more than their fair share of anything. They were both born and raised and always lived in the state of Maine, the finger of land on America's craggy East Coast that pushes up into Canada; a cool and beautiful place populated by salty characters who view other people's nonsense as the ultimate crime.

Nana and Baba were the kind of American citizens who fly a flag everyday and replace it as soon as it starts to look a little sun-faded, but who last voted in 1952, for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Who think burgers barbecued in the back yard and lobster rolls bought from a silver caravan on the side of the road are the best foods ever. Who never venture beyond the American border, except for the occasional drive into Canada. Who don't expect more for their retirement than an annual holiday in Florida, a relationship with a nice doctor, and to watch their grandkids grow tall and lean.

They were unusual in a couple of respects. After their three children left home, they took on a special needs foster child with cerebral palsy and a host of other health problems who wasn't supposed to live beyond three years. With their superlative care she lived to 36, long after they were able to look after her. Kimme Jean was the precious centre of their household, a giant baby with a huge smile and freakishly strong arms who would fiercely hug anyone who neared her crib. Standing just beyond Kimme Jean's reach and reading her story books or watching her television while she smiled and winked at me is one of my strongest childhood memories. Another concerns the summer an African-American couple moved into the house next door to my grandparents. Baba would have been in his 60s then. I was about nine or 10, raised in California and Gisborne, and could not believe the ruckus.

My grandparents had retired to a small town in central Maine called Lisbon Centre. Their small house was surrounded by easy-care shrubs, pansies and garden notions--plastic daisies with petals that spin in the wind and those pink flamingoes that stalk foolishly across the grass. There were no fences in their block which is why Baba, sneaking a cigarette on the stoop, unwittingly met his new black neighbours so soon after they'd moved in. The man, whose name I don't think I ever knew, invited Baba for a beer. Baba went inside the house to talk to Nana about it.

My recollection is a little hazy--Did Nana actually say no, or just express her disapproval? What did my mom say? How many days passed before Baba finally grabbed a six-pack and went to make nice?--but I do know it was a defining moment for my grandparents and for me. They had never cared to have anything to do with black people before that--Maine has a population of 1.3 million, and 98 percent of them are white. It was entirely possible in the mid-80s (and probably still is) for a Mainer to avoid contact with anyone who did not look like, sound like, and think like themselves. That Baba came to consider his black neighbour as a friend was a major achievement for him, the friend and their isolated patch of the country known as Down East.

A nice story, but I don't think my grandfather would have voted for an African-American president. He might have thought Barack Obama seemed like a pleasant young man, a smart cookie, saner than John McCain, but I doubt he would have deemed him the right person to lead the world's superpower. Why? Because he does not look or sound like any American president that has ever been, and you cannot overestimate what a huge barrier that is.

In a roundabout way that is what is expressed by those unfortunate people in remote parts of Ohio and Texas and Arkansas who make it onto the news as dumb-hick oddities because they think Obama has terrorist links or wants to turn the US into a Muslim state, or is plain "uppity". Their reaction is incredible to people who do not live in the US, who have not experienced the vastness of the country and its many unique microcosms, who have not felt what it means to be black or white in a country where that can determine so much--the level of education you attain, the kind of job you will get, your health status, your likelihood of ending up in jail. And yet, there they are as big as Dodge pick-ups, these angry people in Ohio, Texas and Arkansas, watching in disbelief as their country transmogrifies before their eyes. Their discomfort has little to do with the slave-owning tradition, or lynchings, or segregation, or the Civil Rights movement, although those all played a role in the distance that exists between black and white, Hispanic and Asian, working class and educated "elites" in the United States. It is to do with identity. If America no longer looks like me, what is to become of me?

Yes, this certainly is "a change election" as the Obama and McCain camps like to remind us daily. And change is as scary as it can be invigorating and necessary. I have been wondering what Nana and Baba would have made of this most unusual election, of the rise of two strident and polarising women and one wonderfully eloquent black man, and the sudden reassessment of so many principles they held dear--the iron-core strength of the American economy, the natural generational progression towards wealth, the respect and gratitude other countries have for the US, the essential goodness of the American military and rightness of any US attempts at foreign intervention. I think they would have felt out of place in their own country, and terribly disappointed, and possibly a little bit fearful.