By John Rudolph – FI2W Executive Producer
When I was a kid my friends and I used to talk about when the first black U.S. president would be elected. It was a fair question in the 1960s for students at a mixed-race school in New York City. In that era black Americans were achieving “firsts” all the time – the first black Supreme Court Justice (Thurgood Marshall), the first black woman elected to Congress (Shirley Chisholm), the first black to win an Academy Award for best actor (Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Fields), and the first black actress to star in her own TV show (Diahann Carrol in Julia).
Despite those achievements, and many others, the idea of a black person occupying the White House seemed a very long way off. The Civil Rights movement and the subsequent Black Power movement were in full swing. So was the white backlash against them – leading my school mates and me to predict that it might be a century before enough white Americans would be willing to cast their vote for a black candidate seeking the nation’s highest office.
We were wrong. This historic event occurred much sooner than any of us imagined, and for reasons that never entered our discussions. As America struggled, often violently, over racial integration and equal rights, we could not picture the multi-racial, multi-cultural nation that would emerge to elect a president some have called “post-racial.”
The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was one of the seeds sown in that decade that has as much to do with Obama’s victory as the long fight for equality and justice for African Americans. By removing a system of quotas that favored white northern European immigrants, the law helped level the playing field for people around the world who wanted to come to America. They have been coming ever since, creating a nation that has grown more and more diverse over time, and which increasingly sees diversity and multi-racialism as a normal part of life.