As Barack dukes it out with Hillary for the Democratic ticket in the 2008 presidential election, Americans are struggling less with the policies and initiatives of the candidates and more with the superficial (but pressing) question: Can a black man win the office of US president?
Is the U.S ready for a black president? Yes. Will it be Barack Obama? Could be. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Obama was born to a Kenyan immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas. Barack Obama was catapulted into the national spotlight with his inspirational keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. As he extolled his tale of living “the American Dream,” and talked about the “audacity of hope,” he stressed the importance of unity and the shared values among both of the major political parties. But is it possible for him to be president? And what are the implications of a black president? What would it say about race relations in the U.S? With Hillary Clinton as a strong contender, many thought the surefire way to affect the most change in the White House would be for them to share the ticket as president and vice president. But when Obama threw his hat in the ring and both he and Hillary made no bones about their desire to be the top banana, eyes widened. And they knew he meant business. With Clinton’s experience as first lady and as a US Senator representing New York, it raises the thought that maybe a white woman as president would soften the ground for a black president later. Clinton struggles with likability in parts of the US, while Obama bears the challenge of less political experience. Both have to work at overcoming perceptions. Strong and progressive women who are more concerned with getting the business done rather than being liked and attractive while doing it, can come off as abrasive. A junior senator with a cleaner slate than most politicians and fewer obligatory political relationships can be seen as naïve when striving for a utopic America, focusing more on its citizen’s common goals rather than divisive differences.
It would be unfair to dismiss his viability as a candidate simply because Barack Obama is black, but it is almost impossible not to be affected by his race in the decision-making process of vote-casting. One cannot deny what it would mean to a black family to turn on the television and see a black family in the White House. What it would mean to a black mother who struggles to combat the influence of images in the media to see Michelle Obama as first lady talking to reporters about positive and responsible images of beauty? What it would mean to young black children to see two young black girls playing on the White House lawn? To a great-grandfather who saw black men castrated and lynched from trees to see a black man of African decent at the helm of the free world? No, black people do not want their merits to be based on being black. Barack Obama is certainly not running on the ‘Vote For the First Black President’ slogan, but it is impossible to get away from what it would mean to so many people to have a black president.
It is still believed by many minority communities that their voice does not count. That even with the strides that have come since the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement that there are deep race-based inequities in the U.S and abroad that can not be changed by casting a ballot. In the 2000 US presidential election, George W. Bush narrowly won the 7 November election, with 271 electoral votes to Al Gore's 266. There was controversy over who won Florida's 25 electoral votes. Florida residents reported confusing ballot procedures, being turned away at voting booths, and their names missing from registered voter lists. The debacle of these omitted ballots from largely black-populated Florida counties did nothing to sway the confidences of an unjust system. Anger, apathy, and ignorance have plagued minority communities and a candidate like Obama could possibly mobilize the naysayers and the non-registered. According to the US Census Bureau, 142 million Americans were registered to vote and 126 million of them voted in the November 2004 election. According Nation’s Encyclopedia, in 1960, only 29.1 percent of the black voting-age population was registered to vote; by the mid-1990s, that percentage had risen to over 65 percent. By 2003, there were over 12 million registered African American voters. If race is going to be the issue, the numbers are certainly there for African Americans to make a showing.
Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Alan Keys, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun: like the potential black presidential candidates before him, Obama is a reflection of the era. Each of the aforementioned represented, in some way, the changes of our time: the advancement of women, the effects of the Civil Rights Movement, and the choice to embrace conservatism. Obama represents the further advancement, and the more-accepted multiculturalism of our generation. He serves as the everyman. A young ivy-league educated black man, who embraces his black skin, furthering his black lineage with a black wife; has military roots with a WWII veteran grandfather, has Kenyan and Native American roots, and a childhood spent in Indonesia as well as in Hawaii with Polynesian influences. He possesses increased sensibilities to health care having lost his mother to ovarian cancer, has inter-generational sensitivities, having lived with his grandparents, and he identifies how while in his twenties, while working with local churches as a community organizer, he came to understand "the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change."
Because of the haunting images of the assassinations of leaders for change like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and the Kennedy brothers, many fear for the safety of Obama and won’t vote for him because of it. Some challenge if he is black enough for voters who want a candidate who will make no apologies for boldly addressing black issues that still exist in the country. Obama offers, “we're still locked in this notion that if you appeal to white folks then there must be something wrong.” Is he experienced enough for those who want a candidate who can take foreign affairs in hand? Is he free enough from political baggage and special interest groups for those who want change? Is he progressive enough to be a non-threatening candidate for those who are not quite ready for the change he may bring? Some Americans are still harboring historic wounds and fears about the power of black men in their consciousness. In 2004, in a Desperate Housewives-inspired sketch, Nicollette Sheridan appeared ala her “Edie Britt” character in a sketch that opened the evening's Monday Night Football broadcast. The sketch opened with Sheridan dropping a towel to attract the attention of Dallas Cowboys football player Terrell Owens. The sketch was widely condemned as being not only sexually suggestive but also, to many, racially charged. This 60-second segment contained a very particular pairing of images: a powerful black man unable to control his lust and the white seductress inflamed by his physical prowess. In 2006, a similar kind of controversy surrounded Harold Ford, Jr., a black Democrat candidate who ran for the Senate from Tennessee. A TV spot run by his opposition featured a series of people in mock man-on-the-street interviews talking sarcastically about Ford and his stands on the issues. Controversy erupted over the appearance of an attractive blonde white woman, bare-shouldered, who declared that she met Ford at a Playboy party and closes the commercial by looking into the camera and saying, with a wink, “Harold, call me.” A spokeswoman for Ford said he was one of 3,000 people who attended a Playboy party at the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. Critics asserted that the advertisement was a clear effort to play to racial stereotypes and fears: essentially, playing the race card in an election where Ford was trying to break a century of history and become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction. After many complaints, the ad was later pulled. But the damage was done. Ford not only lost his lead in the race, but the race altogether.
To those who say they don’t see color and race doesn’t matter, even the blind can detect the distinct differences of race and can embrace those differences if they choose. There’s no denying that many of Barack Obama’s sensibilities have been affected by being black and male in America as well as working in urban communities as a community organizer. Barack Obama can certainly speak to his experiences in America as he describes being “a skinny young black man with the funny name.” And though he is not ultimately defined by being black, win or lose, he will certainly be seen as the “First,” or the one who came the closest thus far.
Are Americans ready for a black president? Of course they are! Are Americans at a place where race is not a major part of the conversation? No.
1st February 2008