What Tomorrow Really Means

Tomorrow will be historic, thrilling, profound. As Barack Obama takes the stage for his inauguration as our 44th president, the nation will hold its collective breath. Many will cry in utter relief. Some will dance on the Washington Mall, joyful where they once marched in rage. The country will be better.

But it will not be healed. First, for what tomorrow is not

It is not the end of racism. Electing a biracial black man as president of the United States doesn't suck the centuries of blood, sweat, and tears from the slave-worked soil of this country. It doesn't unearth Nat Turner or Emmet Till or Amadou Diallo. It doesn't erase Jim Crow or COINTELPRO or the Rockefeller Laws from the history books. It doesn't change the fact that over 1 million black children live in extreme poverty today. Hell, it doesn't even guarantee better race relations among your co-workers or neighbors or friends.

It is not the end of war. Just ask the folks in Iraq who are still waiting for even the faintest hint of normalcy to return to their shattered life. Just ask the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the children who wait for their loved ones to come home. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and over 4,000 American troops have been killed since the war began in 2003. Obama is certainly more oriented toward diplomacy than his predecessor was, but he is no Martin Luther King Jr., no Mahatma Gandhi, no Desmond Tutu. He hasn't promised any nonviolent solutions, only measured responses. In fact, Obama has promised to increase the military presence in Afghanistan in order to "finish the job," making the challenge sound spuriously simple for a leader so often committed to acknowledging the complexity of conflicts.

It is not the end of politics as usual. Obama won the election with smart communications, technological innovation, and a savvy vision for the future of our country, but let's not kid ourselves -- hope came at a very, very steep price. Some estimate that Obama's campaign alone cost over $1 billion and that the election as a whole totaled an unprecedented $5.3 billion. As our public education system fails, our economy tanks, and our health-care system falls short, the circus of electoral politics plays on with grand fanfare. The inauguration, while unarguably exciting, will also be the final, ostentatious act in this particular performance.

While we must resist the temptation to romanticize this moment into ridiculousness, it is legitimately inspiring.

It is the beginning of a new kind of grace, the sort of humility that results from years of hubris, greed, and recklessness. I believe that Obama's famed character of calmness and reflection will be mirrored in the larger culture. How can we not try something new? Our financial institutions have crumbled around us, and the tectonic plates of global poverty, clashing religions, and violent retaliation are ever-shifting; we need steadfastness and humility like never before -- both within ourselves and within our leaders.

It is the beginning of a more engaged, more hopeful citizenry. With leaders that treat us as more than a 300-million-person focus group, we can effectively hold those leaders accountable. We are no longer a manipulated mass, a nation of children embarrassed by our father's simple-mindedness and impulsive rage. We have stepped into our own power through this election process, grown wiser and more informed than any electorate in decades. Like the wide-eyed children who have found a new hero, we will inevitably be disillusioned, but at least we will be passionate. Indifference and apathy have been replaced with investment and the related risks. I'd much rather live in a country in danger of disappointment than in a nation of indifference.

It is the beginning of our future -- and our fate has never been more global, more dangerous, more shared. We are finally awake to the environmental crisis, committed to reforming our systems of education and health care, hungry to reclaim our reputation in the world. We have been humbled by economic downturn, global insecurity, and the rise of China and India as looming powers. America has been, in the words of spiritual leader Elizabeth Lesser, "broken open." She writes, "I am fascinated by what it takes to stay awake in difficult times. I marvel at what we do in times of transition -- how we resist, and how we surrender; how we stay stuck, and how we grow."

We have been stuck, both with a myopic leader and in an era of greed, retaliation, and a lack of accountability. But we have strained to stay awake and kept our eyes open to witness Guantánamo and Wall Street and Walter Reed. We have surrendered, in a sense, to letting ourselves believe in a political leader once more. We have resisted cynicism and hopelessness. And now we will, indeed, grow.

But this is not magic or the moment of our collective redemption. We are not the forgotten flock and Obama is not our savior. When he places his hand on that Bible tomorrow, it will not be divine intervention.

What it will mark is the moment when a good man, a decent and wise guide, makes a formal commitment to take the lead in making this country a more ethical, more equal place. And more important, the moment when we, the citizens of this motley nation, echo that commitment in full.