Reflecting on President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address last week, Claire Markham compared the boundless optimism she felt eight years ago as the nation elected its first black president with the intransitive and often outright racist opposition the president has faced from his political adversaries since then. For Markham, the Outreach and Campaign Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress, the waning days of the president’s administration and his still-evolving legacy are a moment of bittersweet reflection. Regular Race and Beyond columnist Sam Fulwood III asked Markham to share her views as this week’s guest writer.
Like many women in their late 20s and 30s, I get asked if I want to have kids at least once a week. And for a long time, having a child and bearing witness to the belief that God comes into the world again in each new generation seemed exciting and wonderful to me. My faith instilled in me a sense that having a family is making space for God in the world. A new life and the love of a family multiply the divine for each of us and our communities. I believe that having children, protecting and forming them, and ensuring a brighter future for them is a radical act of hope.
But daily mass shootings; terrorist threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS; climate change deniers chairing congressional committees; widespread police brutality; and politicians seeking broad public support through the vilification of people living in poverty, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and women have made me wonder: Can we create a world into which I want to bring a child?
When Barack Obama was elected president on November 4, 2008, I was sure we could create such a world. I was among the millions who cried in disbelief and cheered with unbridled joy at what America had achieved. I felt transformed. I had cast my ballot for the first black president, and I was bursting with pride. When the Obamas walked onstage in Chicago’s Grant Park that night, I saw more than a young, attractive, happy family—they were the next generation of Rockwellian family portraits. With his speech, then-President-elect Obama confirmed what I felt fervently in that moment: The more perfect union it was our mandate to form was within our grasp.
I was as hopeful and optimistic as anyone, and probably more naïve than most.
When President Obama was elected, I lived with three friends in a newly renovated apartment in a rapidly gentrifying part of Chicago. I was a recent Jesuit college grad, in love with the liberal arts and social justice, and indelibly formed by St. Ignatius’s charge to “go forth and set the world on fire.” I went to brunch and church with equal enthusiasm and considered both equally appropriate places to talk about what a more just world would look like. I was in my second year as a teacher at a small Catholic all-girls high school. As a white woman from the suburbs working on the South Side as an untrained teacher with mostly black and Latina students, I had realized that changing lives would take longer than I initially thought. But I was still sure I could do it.
I was standing on the edge of adulthood: underpaid, but debt-free; paying rent on my own for the first time, but never at the expense of a night out or a weekend trip; living in the city, but only 11 miles from my parents. Education and experience had shown me the evils caused by white supremacy, economic inequality, sexism, and other structures of injustice. But privilege had protected my certainty in the promise of a more just nation and the sincere belief that my efforts would help bring it into being.
In 2008, President-elect Obama felt to me like the perfect president at the perfect time. Today, that feeling has changed—though not faded entirely. President Obama is still the young, smart, confident, and thoughtful leader I admired eight years ago. Although the office and its responsibilities have given me many opportunities to grieve and question his choices—on drone strikes, detention at Guantanamo Bay, immigration policy, and more—they have not fundamentally changed my trust in his judgment, my respect for his governing philosophy, and my belief that he has been a good president.
I still marvel at the contrast between President Obama and President George W. Bush—the only other president of whom I have my own memories. I still tear up looking at the picture of a young black boy touching President Obama’s hair in the Oval Office. I still laugh thinking about President Obama welcoming a baby pope at the White House Halloween party. I still swoon hearing him sing Al Green at the Apollo Theater and freeze when I hear him begin Amazing Grace at the memorial for the 2015 shooting victims in Charleston, South Carolina.
And when I listened to President Obama’s final State of the Union address last week, I was still inspired by his vision for America. “I see you, the American people,” President Obama said. “And in your daily acts of citizenship, I see our future unfolding. … That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. Clear-eyed. Big-hearted. Undaunted by challenge. Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future. I believe in change because I believe in you, the American people.”
I cried as President Obama left the podium that night, wondering if another black person will deliver the State of the Union in my lifetime. I still want President Obama’s vision for America as much as I did when I was 22. But watching the president deliver those lines last week, I realized I no longer share his certainty that we can achieve this vision.
In 2016, I feel acutely what I did not in 2008: limitations. One man, one office, and two terms—these things cannot remake a nation. And creeping in is a fear that there are more severe limits around the corner: limits on what goodness can be realized while evil runs rampant, limits on what justice can be delivered in a corrupt and prejudiced system, limits on what disadvantaged and marginalized people can change in the face of consolidated power. This is what I think about whenever someone asks if I would like to have children.
But people of faith and President Obama’s supporters have at least one thing in common: We believe in miracles. My optimism at age 22 was unrealistic because it was unfettered by the reality of limitations. But some limitations—including my my inability to achieve the fullness of justice without help from others and the divine, or to anticipate with which new coalitions of justice-seekers I can work—may very well free me from my fear.
In this moment, I am not certain that our nation will be more just tomorrow, or in the next generation, or ever. But I remain certain that it is possible to form a more perfect union where I may have kids—and where those kids will play with other safe, happy, and loved kids from all kinds of families. My hope has changed, but I remain hopeful that Grant Park in 2008 will be the first, not the only, time I felt part of an America transformed.
Claire Markham is the Outreach and Campaign Manager for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.
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Associate Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative