I was looking at one of the first papers that I wrote after returning to school after almost twenty years. It was written during the early days of the 2008 Presidential election and it dealt with the concept of “post-racial” politics.
As our country embarks upon an historic presidential election, one of the most important issues that continues to be at the forefront of its very existence-racism, is highlighted now more than ever. For the first time in the history of our electoral process, an African-American candidate will lead a major political party into the general election for president. There are those who view this as an example of what is being referred to as “post-racial” politics. They believe we are in an era where race can no longer be seen as detrimental to the success of a particular candidate. There are others who believe that progress, whether large or small, is no indication that we have moved to the point where race has been transcended. Both sides of this topic have merit in their respective viewpoints and it is the purpose of this discussion to examine, and hopefully bring these views together to decide whether or not we have arrived at this new definition of political success.
Just a short lifetime ago, it was inconceivable to most Americans that an African-American could potentially become president of the United States. The mere mention of a young black man expressing a desire to obtain an education, let alone wanting something as simple as the right to vote, could find him dead at the bottom of a Mississippi swamp. Angry mobs, led mostly by the Ku Klux Klan and its numerous sympathizers did all they could to eradicate any possibility of upward mobility by black folks, especially in the South. According to author John Dittmer, in his book entitled Local People-The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, throughout the winter and spring of 1964, night riders which mainly consisted of the KKK and their many cohorts, unleashed widespread violence that included bombs, gunfire and outright murder. Black churches, which not only served as places of worship, were often used as freedom schools that sought to give black children the education they were denied in the regular segregated school system.
The state of Mississippi was arguably one of the most, if not the most vehemently racist states in the South. One of the main reasons widespread violence was allowed to persist was the fact that the very people that were responsible for making and enforcing the law, were in fact, against equal rights for blacks themselves. Members of the state legislature would often speak out against racial atrocities, but were against voting for The Civil Rights Act. According to Dittmer, white opposition to the Klan was mostly nothing better than lip service. The Klan was allowed to become active on local police forces as well as the Mississippi State Highway Patrol. These heavily Democratic leaning politicians acknowledged the injustices around them, but failed to enact policies or procedures that would outlaw senseless, racially driven violence.
The black community had no choice, but to mobilize itself in order to deal with issues of voting rights and civil rights in general. Because of the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists, demonstrations and marches, such as The March to Montgomery and The Woolworth Counter sit-in of May 1963 were held to protest horrific racial injustice. The sit-in was especially effective as images of angry whites attacking protesters with fists, brass knuckles, various condiments and anything else within their reach were projected across America. Those who remember these turbulent times, either through direct, or indirect experience might be the biggest opponents of this new idea known as “post-racial” politics.
The candidacy of Senator Barack Hussein Obama seems to be front and center in this discussion of race and politics. The son of a Kenyan male student and a young white mother from Kansas, who met at The University of Hawaii, went from decided underdog, to being the Democratic nominee for president. His ability to cross racial boundaries and attract unprecedented support from white voters to his vision, is seen by some as proof that we are entering a mindset that overlooks race in politics. In their book entitled Barack Obama, The Face of American Politics, authors Martin Dupuis and Keith Boeckelman also use examples of other African-American politicians that have successfully crossed racial barriers. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Washington Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown are mentioned as benefitting from unusual support from white voters. The increase in popularity of black politicians is seen as solid evidence that our country is moving beyond race, when deciding on political candidates. Proponents of “post-racial” politics believe that we have moved into some sort of utopian existence where race is pushed way back on the back burner. There are those like Princeton professor Dr. Cornell West, who profusely reject this notion.
In an interview conducted by Robert S. Boynton in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Obama and the Blues”, Dr. West dismisses this new political definition as a myth. He says that to view our society as colorblind because so many whites are willing to vote for Obama is naive. Instead, we should recognize that whites are supporting him because of his qualifications. He points out that blacks have supported white candidates for years and none of those candidates were ever referred to as “post-racial.”
Rejection of this ideal can also be found among older black politicians, as well as others who suffered unimaginable idignities that were part of the racial climate that dominated our nations not so distant past. The media has described much of the difficulty that Sen.Obama faces in convincing white voters as well as Hispanics of his vision of change.
According to NPR political analyst, Juan Williams,Obama has an extensive amount of work to do in the African-American community as well. Mr William’s points out the fact that black voters are almost equally divided in supporting Obama in his quest to go where no black candidate has gone before. He writes that there is a lack of trust on the part of black politicians and community activists that were an integral part of The Civil Rights Movement. They simply do not trust a candidate that so many whites suddenly find appealing. He is seen as not black enough due to his mixed racial heritage. He went to Ivy League schools that were out of reach for many folks in the past. Although I respect and understand their suspicions, I agree with Juan Williams, when he suggests that these examples are more representative of “self-defeating black politics rather than post-racial political idealism.”
The idealism of “post-racial” politics needs to be combined with the reality that opponents of the concept rightfully hold in their memories. Both viewpoints have much more in common than they do differences. The success of today’s political leaders, is without question, intrinsically linked to the sacrifices of those who came before them. Older leadership’s ability to endure horrendous attacks on their attempted progress cannot blind them to those who are recipients of their sacrifices. New leadership must understand that what they perceive as monumental change might be viewed as incremental change by old leadership. According to Juan Williams, the most important question that Obama must answer is-Whose values and priorities will he represent if he actually wins the White House? In my opinion, it is this very question that makes me ultimately reject the idea of “post-racial” politics.
I would be the first person to welcome a society where racism is no longer so prevalent that it continues to eat away at the fabric of our nation-especially in the politcal spectrum. Sen. Obama sees himself as a conduit between the divided sides of racism. He truly believes that he can overcome issues of race. It takes the same courage and strength that the politicians from the Civil Rights era had when they stood up to fight racial injustice. In a small, albeit important way, he may have already won a huge battle in what will prove to be a long war. He won in states such as Montana and Iowa, where most would think a black candidate would struggle. What about states such as Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky? His huge losses in these states during the democratic primaries proves that the idealism of “post-racial” politics has a long way to go before it can become an accepted reality across the masses. When asked who they would vote for if Senator Hillary Clinton actually lost in her bid to be the nominee, many of her supporters have said they would vote as independents, republican, or worse yet, not at all rather than lend their support to Obama. The last time I checked, there were virtually no significant political differences between Obama and Clinton.
Why is there doubt in the African-American community where some assume he will get a free pass? Why do some in the black community not consider him black enough? Is it because he went to Columbia and Harvard, or is it because his mother is white? Is it because fellow Senator Joe Biden called him a representative of the “clean and articulate” part of black America,as referenced in Juan Williams’ article?
For many, including myself, the answers to the above questions cannot escape the onus of outright racism. The violent grip of our nation’s past continues to strangle the necks of those who are trying to breathe today. Although the grip isn’t as tight as it perhaps once was, it still represents a roadblock in us being able to view ourselves as “post-racial” in any way concerning politics. What is promising, is that we have someone like Sen.Obama, who is willing to try crossing bridges and open up previously locked doors. Will he succeed in moving our society into this mythical era of racial tolerance, even if he becomes President Barack Hussein Obama?-The question in my mind still remains unanswered at best.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… And one fine morning-So we beat on,boats against the current,borne ceaselessly into the past.”-F.Scott Fitzgerald-The Great Gatsby
Written by Daryl Robinson 6/19/2008 for Dr. Julie Drew-The University of Akron