When I was dealing with the racial culture shock of moving from a public high school in D.C. to Vassar College, my brother told me a story about going to summer camp when he was 9. He was the only black kid at the whole camp, and on the first day when they began picking teams for basketball he was the first one chosen because the other kids assumed that because he was black, he could ball.
My brother sucks at basketball, and he sucked then. The kids at the camp were disappointed, to say the least, and they let him know with the kind of unconscious and casual cruelty only children are capable of. When it came time to go swimming, my brother was promptly informed by one of the other kids that black people couldn't swim.
Of course, bougie as we are, my brother had been taking swim lessons for years, and he swam circles around this kid just to prove the point. It was a formative experience for my brother, who realized his personal excellence would speak louder than anything anyone could say about the color of his skin.
Since Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House, and shortly after Barack Obama started running for president, we started hearing some identity-specific variations of what that obnoxious kid told my brother before he got a mouthful of chlorine wake. As an incessant reminder that women don't belong in positions of authority, Pelosi was attacked as a "man" or peppered with criticisms of her looks or suggestions that she needed to be home doing domestic work. Obama's intelligence provoked an existential crisis for some conservatives, who insisted he didn't write his autobiography or legal work, or he got into Harvard or even was elected president because of affirmative action.
The passage of yesterday's health-care bill isn't due to the efforts of just one person. But it's fair to say that the health-care reform bill could not have passed the House without the political skills of the first female speaker of the House and the first black president of the United States. Conservatives won't abandon the use of tribalist and sexist attacks against them, but these will recede into the fog of history, in which the relative diversity of the Democratic leadership at this moment speaks louder than words can say about the stubborn leftover myths from America's past.
-- A. Serwer