The 2008 presidential campaign publicly revealed discrimination experienced by many Americans.

Inauguration Day – Jan. 20, 2009 – will be an incredible moment, not only for Barack Obama and his supporters, but for everyone in our nation. This includes John McCain, whose concession speech stuck with me more than anything else I heard on election night in November.

His speech began with a moving and sincere acknowledgement of Obama’s efforts and achievements. McCain showed great respect to his opponent for inspiring so many new voters. The next portion of McCain’s speech simultaneously gave cause for great celebration and great concern.

He said, “This is an historic election. I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [100 years ago]. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in the greatest nation on earth.”

It was not until McCain’s last point – “no reason now” – that his supporters began to cheer; it was this part of his speech that typified my concern. I imagine that at every major victory like this one, such as enactment of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, or the Civil Rights Act, some people said, “Finally, we’ve done it. Equality has been achieved. Nothing more to worry about.”

The 2008 presidential election was historic, but not because it proved racism in America has ended. It was historic for two reasons: It brought the racism that still exists in America into view, and it showed that with courage, persistence and grassroots organizing, this racism can be overcome.

During the campaign, there were persistent testimonies – on national television and radio – from people who said they refused to vote for a black person. Two neo-Nazis were arrested for plotting the assassination of Obama and 102 other black people. If you visited one of many online message boards that discussed the election, you would have found racial slurs and violent threats made by anonymous posters in frightening abundance.

These examples are not limited to the Jim Crow south. In Maine, an acquaintance told me they heard people chuckle over the story of an elementary school student whose father instructed them to “vote for the hockey player, not the n**ger” in their school’s mock election. Without question, the 2008 presidential campaign publicly revealed discrimination experienced by many Americans in their personal lives.

It’s this fact that made Obama’s election all the more incredible. It showed that – despite ongoing racial prejudice – these barriers can be defeated. McCain’s speech, to me, singled out the African-American community as the one group that won this struggle for the presidency, and then concluded that nobody now can criticize distribution of opportunity in America. This thinking defines the struggle to end oppression as existing only between two groups of people, black and white.

In reality, oppression exists in many forms beyond race and ethnicity, including between income classes, ability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and religion. It is not an issue that can be broken down simply by red vs. blue states, or electoral politics. Oppression can occur around the world and in each of our communities, even among the people who voted for Obama.

The hard work of defeating oppression must be performed not simply by a single group of oppressed, but by all. Privileged people must work just as hard to end discrimination as those who suffer most from it. As we work hard to identify and end oppression, our country is all the better for it.

In Obama’s victory speech, he said, “That is the true genius of America that our union can be perfected.” The act of identifying and combating oppression is part of the hard work needed to defeat injustice. This honesty and inward reflection is how we will perfect our Union. For this reason, I feel Obama’s election was an achievement for our country as a whole. But, let us not rest for too long.

The hard work is far from over.

Craig Saddlemire is a community organizer and videographer, who lives in Lewiston.


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