Even before Barack Obama was elected president, there was an open question of whether the 2008 election would have an immediate positive impact on race relations in the United States. As I watched the election results come in last Tuesday from the basement of Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center, I thought I had an answer:
The Afro-American Cultural Center was the temporary headquarters for Yale for Change, as well as several other pro-Obama groups in the days preceding the election. Though the Center is a large building, on Election Day it was literally full of students and local volunteers. The air buzzed with the sound of hundreds of people simultaneously calling Florida and New Mexico residents while sitting on floors, each other and even on the grass outside. It was impossible to walk from one room to another without tripping over outstretched legs or running into the one of countless new volunteers that streamed into the Center throughout the evening.
The vast majority of these volunteers were white, and the significance of hundreds of white people using the Afro-American Cultural Center to elect the country’s first black president did not escape any of the Center’s black staff members. “I’ve never seen so many white people here before,” said one sophomore staff member with a smile on her face. “When I saw people sitting in the dark outside on their cell phones I thought something was wrong. This is amazing.” For many of the volunteers, Tuesday was the first time they had ever entered the building.
Once 7:00 hit and polls began closing on the East Coast, something changed. The Center’s staff began preparations for a results-watching party in the basement, bringing back plenty of food from Thai Taste, Popeye’s and other local restaurants. Soon, the basement was as full as the rest of the Center had been. But as I sat down to watch the results, my white friend who had been phone banking turned to me and asked if it was okay she was there. “Of course it is, why not?” I said. “Well,” she answered, “no one from upstairs is down here. Everyone here is black.”
It was true — although students of all colors walked down the stairs to eat some of the available food, only students of color had stayed to watch the results. The party had been planned weeks in advance, and flyers were posted throughout campus and on the walls of the cultural center. But the Center and Yale for Change had failed to coordinate, and Yale for Change had scheduled its own, equally packed party at AEPi, a fraternity nearby.
As my friend travelled to and from the fraternity to report that yes, nearly everyone there was white, I grew cynical about the significance of Obama’s victory. It seemed that while all students felt comfortable voting and phone banking on behalf of a black presidential candidate, when it came to socializing, none of us could escape the unfortunate stigma of self-segregation.
But as the night wore on and states from Ohio to Virginia turned blue, the room’s composition began to transform. There was no more food, yet more white, Latino and Asian faces appeared. By the time Wolf Blitzer turned Will.i.am into a hologram and began his countdown to 11 p.m., the room reflected a much more diverse array of Yale’s population, and any possible discomfort displayed by the non-black students earlier was replaced by giddiness and excitement.
Soon after Obama gave his victory speech, the two groups that had split at 8:00 were reunited. The several hundred people from the Center marched to Old Campus, arm in arm, chanting “Yes we can,” as students from AEPi and residential colleges ran to join the procession. As we formed a giant circle together to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the top of our lungs, those who knew the words also sang songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Ironically, the only song we didn’t sing was “Kumbaya.”
I don’t know what effect the Obama administration will have on race relations in this country. But if last Tuesday was any indication, confronting issues of race does not have to be divisive.
Niko Bowie is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.