Tuesday morning the pageant of democracy began in earnest. At 6:15am on West 120th street off Morningside Drive, I stood with my neighbors in the longest polling line I have seen in more than two decades of voting on the Upper West Side. Reading about the death of Barak Obama’s grandmother as I waited in line, I thought of my own grandparents, long gone, and the journey that took all four from Russia and Poland to Ellis Island and the shadow of the Statue of Liberty nearly a century ago. America is a great country because it is, as John Kennedy once termed it, “a nation of immigrants”. Some immigrants were brought here unwillingly in chains from Africa, but then their descendants also became immigrants in a great migration from the American South to the North. It is also true that Native Americans were exterminated and driven from their homes. The American story is far from perfect.
But today is a day for the promise of the American dream. This is a day for the racism that remains a shameful part of our heritage to take a seat in the back of the bus, replaced by the hope and tolerance that is at the heart of who we are. This country is changing, and this unimaginable election is proof of that change. As former New York City Mayor David Dinkins once said, we are not a melting pot, but a gorgeous mosaic. Each tile or community has its own distinct characteristics, but when one steps back, a beautiful picture emerges.
The great strength of the American experiment has been its tolerance of people from other parts of the world. Never perfect, this is now threatened by a post 9/11 fear of immigration and immigrants. There is this idea that immigrants take American jobs and somehow damage American traditions. Of course, as immigrant families like the Kennedys of Boston and the Obamas of Hawaii and Chicago demonstrate, the power of the American dream has long been its ability to absorb those who come to this shore. People are not assimilated, but immigrants are changed by America and change America as well. My family is a long way from its roots in Eastern Europe, and we are now truly Americans, but this is not the America my grandparents came to. It is a better place than that. The talents and historic memories of all of the people of this planet have managed to make their way to this country – this amazing experiment that was once called the new world. That is of course, the greatness of America.
With a global economy, instant communications, and an emerging world youth culture, we are poised for an American century based on the fact that America is a place that can continue to attract the world’s talents. Economic growth is based on the ability to develop and deploy brainpower. While our education system is not doing all it needs to develop brainpower, this country still attracts people from all over the world and puts them to work. In New York City, 40% of the people who live here were born in other nations. There is no place in the world that can say that and truly lay claim to being the center of the modern world.
Judging by the look of the line I stood in Tuesday, Barak Obama was clearly the president of Morningside Heights. By 11:00pm Tuesday night, he had become president of the rest of this nation, if not the world. Like many of my contemporaries, the news that Barak would soon be President Obama brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart. Listening to him on election eve, and seeing his family join with the Biden family was like watching a movie or a dream. President-Elect Obama is correct of course: It is not a dream. It is a challenge to public service and a call to create a true national community. Just like the movies though, it has come in the nick of time.