AND THEN CAME OBAMA
But “Is White America Ready?
By Thomas L Blair
Much has been written about the charismatic new politician Barack Obama’s chances of becoming America’s first Black president, this article surveys key turning points and dilemmas in African American presidential history from the slave cabins to the White House.
The story of Senator Barack Obama’s challenge for the American presidency has so far been more about his uniqueness and mixed race origins than his place in the centuries-old quest of Black people to sit behind the Oval Office desk. The truth is that African Americans have been presidential hopefuls since the post-slave emancipation era of the 1880s. What is striking about Obama is that he reflects the trend of Black politicians making common ground with white America in an age when a large mass of Black people are still not free of deprivation and racial discrimination.
The Historic Trend of Black US Presidential Candidates
More than a century of Black politics lie behind these assertions. Were Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, the Mississippi Republican, brought back to life today, the first Black American to launch a presidential campaign would most likely be delighted by Barack Obama’s brilliant bid for the American Presidency. The Senator, born in slavery, gained his delegations’ support as a candidate in the 1880 and 1888 Republican nominations convention, reports the Biographical Directory of the US Congress.
Called to heal a nation reeling from a murderous civil war, Senator Bruce brought a fresh, liberal approach to a range of crucial issues. He championed public works that served the common interest – such as improving the nation’s rivers, pensions, manufactures, and education and labour legislation. Bruce did not shrink from urging land rights and voting privileges for Black people, desegregating the US army, and securing the rights of Native Americans.
The next tranche of Black candidates took giant strides further along the freedom road, movingly described by Lerone Bennett Jr, author of the historical text Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962. They organised unprecedented coalitions across race lines around progressive political themes.
Eighty years after Senator Bruce, the Rev. Channing E. Phillips, leader of the District of Columbia delegation, became the first Black person ever nominated for the presidency – a distinction accomplished at the 1968 Democrat National Convention.
Shirley St Hill Chisholm, the first-ever African American woman elected to Congress and first serious Black female presidential candidate grasped the public’s attention in 1972 at the Democratic National Convention. Brooklyn-born of Caribbean parents, and representing New York in Congress, Chisholm spoke against the Vietnam war, and for civil liberties, women’s rights, working people, the unemployed and the poor.
“Unbought and unbossed”, Chisholm silenced critics and urged voters to judge her on her character and platform rather than her race or gender. She famously said: “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”
In a similar vein, the “Rainbow Warrior” Jesse Jackson had Black and white voters queuing up at polling stations in 1984. He secured more than a million new voters and won 3.5 million votes to help Democrats regain control of the Senate in 1986. Campaigning in 1988, Jackson came first or second in 46 out of 54 primary contests. To his credit, he registered more than two million new voters, won seven million votes, and helped boost hundreds of state and local elected officials into office.
For their part, Democrats Rev Al Sharpton and Senator Carol Mosely-Braun seized the opportunity to engage the voting public as they battled George W Bush in the 2004 elections. They hitched their forthright appeals to end racism and oppression and restore affirmative action programmes with a wider message. Paramount, they said, was the need to improve health, education and welfare provision favoured by white and Hispanic low income workers as well as Black people.
Mainstream Black presidential candidates were not immune to the topics and tactics of maverick Republicans and Black Leftist candidates, as well. Alan Keyes, President Ronald Reagan’s stout defender, broke new ground as a Republican Party presidential candidate in the 1996 and 2000 elections on a pro-life, anti-abortion, family values and tax reform ticket. Socialist and anti-racist campaigners added city regeneration, the environment and health to their election agendas. Charlene Mitchell campaigned for the Communist Party in 1968 in opposition to the Iraq war, the Bush tax plan, budget and “retrograde social policies”.
Black presidential candidates also kept a watchful eye on the successes of a new generation of ferment at every political level. They copied the voter registration tactics of student groups, community organisations and civil rights leaders. They learned from the strategies of emergent Black powerbrokers and policymakers who were voted into the halls of power to command governance and resources in largely white constituencies.
The victories of trend-setters at state, city and neighbourhood levels were eye openers for fledgling Black presidential candidates. Success lay in large part in mobilising campaign teams heavily dependent on white academics, multi-racial advisors, and used the talents of spin doctors skilled at manipulating public opinion. Their “non-racial” tactics captured the support and endorsement of white and minority ethnic power players.
Are there some good examples that merited the concern of Black presidential candidates? Yes, there are. Deval Patrick, challenged the long-standing Irish-American political machine to become the first Black governor of Massachusetts. Cory Booker, the young mayor of Newark, New Jersey, brought his progressive activism into the arena of health, education and welfare issues. Adrian Fenty took over city hall as mayor of Washington, DC. Shirley Franklin, became mayor of Atlanta, a city of the now more tolerant “New South” shaped by the liberal mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, companion of the slain Rev Martin Luther King, Jr and Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations.
And then came Obama (Barack “the Blessed”, Hussein)
Obama emerged on the US presidential scene from a long line of Black politicians – from 1880 to 2008 – who tried “to make America what America should be”. The pathfinders, among them Phillips, Mitchell, Chisholm and Jackson, were models of sober thought and practise. “If I can fix the hospitals, schools and social services, then everybody will benefit. And I think I can”, was their clarion call to voters.
Obama’s message is akin to the platforms of Black politicians who appeal to “all Americans”. He is another reflection of Black advocates seeking a common ground with white America. He is an ideological descendant of his forebears.
Obama has the charisma and skills of oration he developed as a young community activist organising Black and white church neighbourhoods in the mean streets of South Side Chicago. No wonder he can present a powerful vision and defence of a united nation. His well-chosen rhetoric: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America”, won him a standing ovation at the Democratic Convention 27 July 2004.
Sections of white America welcomed the political expression of changing attitudes. Obama was praised as the “messenger of change”. Several newspapers, in a similar spirit, called him “a beacon for multi-racial democracy”. Indeed, Obama, feted as the right Black man at the right time, was annointed as a “Knight of the Non-Racial Realm”.
How can this be explained? Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson, a renowned scholar, ordained Baptist minister and public intellectual, has probably given the most useful explanation. He talks of white people for the first time “publicly identifying and embracing a person of colour – in this case, a Black man who is transcending what they believe to be race – to represent the entire swath of the population”.
The Spectre of Black Despond
When historians come to write about the Obama Challenge they will put aside this tidal wave of hypocrisy. There is something disingenuous about the applause for non-racialism.
Political scientists know full well that dominant white is the colour of politics, and, indeed, of everything else in modern America. Ethnic and race politics is the common feature fashioned century of race-based confrontation. Each identifiable group, by descent creed or colour – the descendants of old white immigrant Jews, Irish, Italians, the offspring of the burgeoning Hispanics, and the new Arab and Asian caucuses, too – fights its own corner.
Therefore, they fiercely compete to bar the centuries-old African American people from access to the best housing, schools and bigger pay checks. Why, then, should beleaguered Black people give themselves over to the doubtful mercy of their craven competitors, as the Black scholar-activist W E B Du Bois thundered a century ago.
Scholars and activists know that it took a combination of demonstrations by Black people and their white allies, of litigation, judicial intervention and executive decision to establish a legal precedent for justice and equality in our time – witness the work of Martin Luther King, Jr and President Lyndon B Johnson in fostering the 1960s civil rights act.
But, the yearning in the “souls of Black folk” still rages unfulfilled. Political styles may change, said Rev Al Sharpton, but to what avail? “If Mr. Obama is successful in becoming President, that will not automatically solve racial injustice in America, and therefore the need for advocates for racial justice is needed,’ he said.
“The need for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t vanish when Thurgood Marshall was appointed to the Supreme Court,” Sharpton told Richard Prince of the popular “Journal-isms” column on media diversity at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s Web site.
Moreover, the roots of Black Discontent run deep. Obama’s quest for the US Presidency “must mean something tangible as well as symbolic to be liberating”. This is the view of Ron Walters, author of African American Leadership, 2004 and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. “Candidates Must be Accountable to Black Issues” said Walters in his column for the online Black Press USA, a representative voice of America’s Black newspapers and news media.
What is being done to address the marginalising of Black issues in presidential races? The academic Ron Daniels, manager of Jesse Jackson’s campaigns, and independent presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in 1992, said: “Black people have no choice but to continue to demand affirmative action, reparations (by the West to Africa for slavery) and other governmental policies designed to overcome past and present oppression and exploitation of Africans in America”.
For the recent past , read Prof Kenneth Clark’s ruthlessly honest study of the 1960s, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power, harked back to what the English philosopher-peacemaker Betrand Russell called a “deeply shocking indictment of the kind of society which can impose on people the misery and brutal suffering experienced by the oppressed Negroes of America’s city slums”.
For the present, the worth of African Americans “is just 57 percent of that of white Americans, when comparing such factors as income, unemployment, homeownership, business ownership, median net worth and poverty rates”, according to the 2007 State of Black of America, by the National Urban League, the nation’s oldest and largest community- based movement devoted to empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream.
Measuring the Black (or any other) Candidates’ Platform and Actions
Whatever happens in the next decades, with or without Obama, the value of all presidential candidates, whatever their race, gender or political stripes, will be measured against the political demands of “Black Humanity”. The unmet demands of Black people for equality and justice, are recited by Rev Martin Luther King Jr, in Why We Can’t Wait. They are based on a “methodology and philosophy of social revolution” that is historic, morally-based, incontrovertible and non- negotiable.
The just demands of Black people are, of course, quintessentially the hallmark of the American dilemma previewed by de Tocqueville, the 1830s social explorer of the flawed “character, prejudices and passions” of Democracy in America, and admirably analysed by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s.
As for the future, “We know we are ready for a Black president,” says Rev Jesse Jackson, “The question is whether or not white America is ready.”
Comments are welcome. Your views can help shape the “Alternative-Net” debate and action on one of the most important issues of our times.
* Thomas L. Blair, an African America scholar, is editor and publisher of the Chronicleworld news magazine on Changing Black Britain and Afro-Europe http://wwwchronicleworld.org. He blogs on http://chronicleworld.wordpress.com. Blair is also the award-winning columnist for The -Latest, the online citizens’ journal.