If you're ready to stop settling for what the cynics tell you, you must accept, and finally reach for what you know is possible, then we will win these primaries, we will win this election, we will change the course of history…
Barack Obama, Kennedy Endorsement Event, January 28, 2008
America has a black man running for the highest office in the land, and it’s not Bill Clinton.
To understand Senator Obama’s future chances, it helps to look at the past. Although the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) prohibited voting discrimination, most southern blacks and minorities throughout the U.S. had effectively no vote from the post-Reconstruction era through the 1960s. Through Jim Crow laws, literacy tests and poll taxes legalizing violence and intimidation, southern states were able to keep blacks’ votes out of the ballot box for nearly a century. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did all African-Americans in the United States win the vote, allowing “unprecedented black participation in the United States political process” (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation).
It was impossible, then, for an African-American to run a serious campaign for the presidency until 43 years ago.
Since then a successful presidential run has proven elusive for all but the status quo, but several blacks have paved the way. By 1968, on the strength of the Voting Rights Act, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and served seven terms, until 1983. In 1972 the little-known Chisholm became the first major party black candidate for President of the United States and received 152 electoral votes, ultimately losing the Democratic nomination to George McGovern.
When another black presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, made a bid for the presidency in 1984 and 1988, he too surpassed expectations, garnering about 3 million and 7 million votes respectively. In 1984 he gained 21% of the popular vote but only 8% of delegates, and landed in third place for the Democratic nomination. By 1988 he won seven primaries and four caucuses to prove that, although marginalized, he was not the fringe candidate pundits had written off. In 1996, 2000 and 2008 Republican Alan Keyes ran for presidential office, and in 2004 Reverend Al Sharpton campaigned for the Democratic nomination, both less successfully. But all set precedents for today’s black candidate.
Some maintain that the idea of a black president remains implausible in 2008. Today the only black senator serving in the U.S. Senate (one of five in history) happens to be running for president. Yet in Obama, this election has produced a viable candidate who is black (actually biracial, black-identified) – one who insists on being judged upon his individual merits. His eloquence, intelligence and charisma have all helped him to bridge the racial divide.
As the current black candidate reshapes the course of U.S. politics, winning primaries in Iowa and South Carolina, the nation may well ask itself: Are we about to witness the first black president? And what will this mean for future black presidential hopefuls?
No matter the outcome in 2008, we can be sure that a glass ceiling has been smashed. In 1990, Obama became the first black president of The Harvard Law Review in 104 years. Now, eighteen years later, he has positioned himself as one of two possible presidential contenders against the Republicans.
The senator has campaigned on the spirit of inclusiveness -- of races and religions, social classes and political parties. Refusing the slot of token black presidential candidate, he chooses to identify not only with African-American voters, but with all voters:
Our separate struggles are really one. If there's a child stuck in a crumbling school who graduates without ever learning how to read, it doesn't matter if that child is a Latino from Miami or an African-American from Chicago or a white girl from rural Kentucky - she is our child, and her struggle is our struggle.
Perhaps it takes a minority candidate to hold out the possibility of a post-race politics. Many voters have responded by overcoming ethnic and gender biases to choose the candidate that best speaks for them (and for younger voters, race simply seems to be less of a factor). With the Kennedy family’s recent blessing, and wins in Iowa and South Carolina, America has continued to cheer Obama on. This black candidate is a first in that, against all odds, he has truly broken through.
There is no question that Obama’s widespread appeal has made the idea of other black presidential candidates possible. Just as Senator Hillary Clinton awakens us to the real possibility of a woman becoming president, his candidacy too provides hope for a future in which race doesn’t play such a divisive role in the political discourse. We are beginning to see that, yes, a black candidate can win in this United States. And soon.
At the same time, it must be said that this man is exceptional in his ability to cross over. He gives you the impression that all things are possible, but his success may have more to do with his charismatic style than with the nuts and bolts and substance of racial politics. In America, we are still living in a racist society – whether latent or blatant. Witness the immigration debate, which is all about race.
Past, present or future -- a minority candidate’s power lies in appealing to our greater humanity. “I have a dream that my four little children will…not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” said Martin Luther King Jr., who also urged inclusiveness. This is nothing if not a step toward that dream.
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