Out of many.

Zach Wiita

They look like America.

That was the thought that came to my mind as I looked over the Huffington Post’s collection of photographs from President Barack Obama’s first state dinner Sunday night, which hosted the numerous state governors who were in town for the National Governors Association meeting. It was really quite striking.

To begin with, we have the Obamas. Barack Obama, of course, as the child of an American and a Luo Kenyan, is part of that 2.4 percent of Americans of multiracial descent whose very existence was illegal in many states until the 1960s, while Michelle Obama is the great-great-grandchild of a man from South Carolina named Jim Robinson who was born into slavery more than 150 years ago. And now, obviously, they are president and first lady of the United States.

From New York came Gov. David Paterson and his wife Michelle. Governor Paterson is also of African descent, but he is unique in another way. Paterson is visually impaired as a result of an infection he suffered as an infant. He lacks any vision in his left eye and possesses very little vision in his right.

In the governor of Kansas, meanwhile, we see evidence of the cracked glass ceilings of America, however slow this process may be. Kathleen Sebelius has led her state for six years. Like current and former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska, Jan Brewer of Arizona, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Christine Gregoire of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut, Beverly Perdue of North Carolina, Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming and Miriam Ferguson of Texas, Sebelius is providing the kind of female leadership that only a couple generations ago few would have believed possible.

It’s always remarkable to me to think that when my great-grandmother was born, she did not even have the right to vote – yet today, women like Hillary Clinton play leading roles in state and national politics.

We saw evidence that other barriers besides those against African-Americans and women are breaking down. Bobby Jindal, an American of Punjabi Indian descent, was elected governor of Louisiana in 2007. He is the first Indian-American to have been elected to a statewide post in the United States, and he is frequently speculated to be a potential Republican candidate for president in 2012.

If Gov. Jindal were to win the Republican nomination, the 2012 election – presumably between Jindal and Obama – would be the first election in American history between two non-European-American


Perhaps the most famous state governor to attend Sunday’s dinner, Arnold Schwartzenegger of California, is famously an immigrant. Born in Thal, Austria, Schwartzenegger is a naturalized citizen who first came to the United States at the age of 21. He became a movie star in the 1980s and was elected governor of California in 2003. He still holds dual citizenship with Austria and is a prime example of the hard work and patriotism of those who come to America for a better life.

Lest this column seem somehow condescending or insulting (“Oh my God! A black man and an Indian in the White House!”), let me make it clear that all this is a way of saying something wonderful is happening in America: The barriers that once, in defiance of reason, served to disempower and oppress millions of Americans are coming down.

Today, we live in a world where the color of your skin, the nationality of your parents, the sex you were born with and the physical disabilities you live with are no longer determinative of how far you will go. Jefferson’s adage about equality is starting to become a reality and not merely a promise.

This isn’t to say we do not still face very real problems with racism, sexism, bigotry or prejudice. Anyone who has ever heard someone snicker at a joke making fun of Latinos or who has ever researched the grossly unequal treatment received by Americans of minority heritages at the hands of the U.S. legal system knows this. These problems shouldn’t be minimized, and they will still require decades of hard work and dedication.

All the same, though, I look at the current political leadership of the United States and its state governments, and I am encouraged. Men and women who would never have been allowed anywhere near the reins of power only a few decades ago are now among the elite. The walls are coming down.

The original de facto motto of the United States until 1956 was a phrase that appears on the Great Seal: “E pluribus unum,” or, “Out of many, one.” As the United States continues to embrace multiculturalism and equality of opportunity for all of its citizens, I hope this motto continues to prove itself true.

Zach Wiita is a politcal science and theatre studies major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].