Obama’s First Election and Racism Exploratory Essay
The racial progress that America achieved as a result of the 2008 Presidential elections was a long way coming.
It had always been known that the American society, based on its racial diversity, would one day shake off the shackles of negative racism and put in office a president of a different race other than a white (Kenski et al. 5).
For African Americans, the march of Barack Obama towards the American presidency was the culmination of a long journey that started in the farmlands of the South during times of slavery. Even after the North had abolished slavery, the South still held on to it for as long as possible.
However, the abolition of slavery only meant social justice and without a right to political representation and voting rights, racial liberties still eluded African Americans (Kenski et al. 7).
The civil rights movement of the 1960s sought to ensure that, among other things, the right to political representation was guaranteed to all persons of colour in America. It was only through political representation that America’s endemic racial shortcomings could be dealt with.
The idea behind the clamour for racial equality was for the nation to put equality measures into action so as to ensure that all Americans have equal opportunities (Dwyer et al. 223).
Prior to the candidature of Obama, many persons of colour had entered and successfully secured elective positions in various sections of American representation. Many had vied for and won state legislatures, local councils, state governorship, state senate, US congress, and even the US senate.
Still, none had made a serious presidential bid that had gotten off the ground. Few such as civil rights activist Jesse Jackson had tried but failed to go anywhere past the primaries (Kenski et al. 15).
This paper examines how racial undertones and outright racism influenced the election of Barack Obama into office. The paper examines Obama’s ascent to the presidency on the basis of a variety of topics.
To begin with, the more general aspects of American presidential politics are observed, before narrowing down to the specifics that president Obama’s election represented.
The issues that this paper brings out include white prejudice, racial stereotyping, the Bradley effect, racial cooperation, and national progress among others.
American Presidential elections
The American presidential system is truly a marvel when it comes to political leadership and the governance of a vast democracy (Polsby et al. 89). The founding fathers, in their wisdom, had realised that in order for the union to hold, access to leadership had to be equally provided for all the states, big or small.
The voting system was adjusted so as to include not only majority votes but also Electoral College votes. This system served the American society well for over 200 years; until emergent societal issues revealed the weak foundation that some of the ideals had been based on.
The election of the president and indeed those of federal representatives had only been fine-tuned to represent state equality rather than the equality of all persons (Polsby et al. 136).
With the liberation of racial rights and inclusion of the minority American races into the democratic process, the system proved a rather difficult task for minorities to manoeuvre to the top (Dwyer et al. 225).
Suddenly, persons of colour were afforded the chance to garner for national office, but with very limited opportunities to take. For one, the two party systems between Democrats and Republicans were very difficult for persons of colour to win.
The alternative of running as an independent candidate did not offer much help either. To this effect for any persons of colour to have any realistic chance of ascending to the American presidency, they first had to achieve what seemed impossible, win their party’s candidature (Polsby et al. 217).
Therefore, by president Obama winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, he had cleared the first hurdle but was still faced with many more hurdles ahead.
Historically, one of the greatest hindrances to persons of colour ascending to elective office has been white prejudice (Payne et al. 369). This is because in America, the whites constitute nearly 75% of the populace, with Hispanics at 13% and blacks at around 12.5% (Piston 432).
Going by these numbers, and in a majority-wins democratic model, it goes without saying that the largest racial group inevitably tends to take the majority of the elective seats.
In the past, white prejudice was openly practiced in the form of explicit prejudice which used ‘separate but equal legislation’ to enforce racial discrimination (Payne et al. 373).
The result of this explicit prejudice was that whites had limited the power of the other racial people in the country by ensuring that they had no rights to elective representation.
Although this form of prejudice was eventually corrected, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of the civil rights movement, its effects had continued to be felt up until the Democratic Primaries in 2008 (Piston 434).
The truth was that although the letter of the law had changed to include equal rights, the spirit was still limiting towards the liberated races.
Another form of prejudice that quickly filled up the void that had been left by explicit prejudice was that of implicit prejudice. This was especially true in the country’s south were politics and social life were still heavily punctuated with racial undertones (Kenski et al. 235).
In counties that were predominantly white in the south, there was little question that for Obama to gain those votes, he had a lot of work to do. In such places, race was not seen as simply a misplaced social notion, but rather as a way of life that had been in existence for as long as the country was founded.
Therefore, this implicit prejudice was one of the greatest battles which the Democratic nominee had to overcome in not only the Primaries but also the elections.
Despite Obama managing to rally almost the entire nation behind his cause, the implicit prejudice was cited as one of the reasons why he failed to garner populous white votes by getting 43% (Piston 432).
One of the greatest barriers that Obama had to overcome in the election was the negative racial stereotypes that had for centuries been part of the American psyche. One such stereotype was that other races other than the whites were simply not American enough (Kenski et al. 220).
For white Americans, the ability of one to trace their heritage was usually viewed as a form of cultural pride in America. For instance, Americans of Italian descent saw their ancestry as a form of pride, similar to those of Irish, German, Scottish, and French descent.
However, this form of pride in ancestry descent was never seen as un-American; on the contrary, it was seen as a source of being American.
The same was not the case for Americans of Asian, Hispanic or African descent. Americans of Latin heritage were, for instance, only viewed as being Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican or of any other Latin American descent, and not simply American.
The same stereotyping applied to African Americans who were viewed only as being African American. Although they were born and bred within the American society, they still did not quite measure up to being American (Porterfield 18).
The result of such racial stereotyping was that whereas a white American being elected as president was seen as a form of the presidency representing the best interest of the entire country, the same was not for other Americans (Porterfield 22).
Electing a black man to the presidency was viewed by many as not being for the best interest of the entire country, but rather for those of his race (Harris et al. 19). This was a considerable challenge to Obama’s campaign as he was simply viewed as being the black candidate.
Obama had to overcome such stereotypes and not be seen as championing the cause of the African Americans, but rather of the entire American society.
This was also problematic to him because many pundits during Obama’s primary victories were only concerned with analyzing his possible performances based on the racial profile of the states where the primaries were taking place (Harris et al. 76).
For instance, many were largely interested in discussing how Obama could perform in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire since those states were predominantly white.
This showed that the racial stereotypes associated with his candidature were mainly that his being black meant he would automatically perform poorly in white-voter dominated places.
The Bradley Effect
In previous American elections for various elective offices, polls had consistently showed that a black candidate was leading, only to lose out during the final election.
One of the most synonymous African American politicians to suffer such an outcome was the former L.A Mayor Tom Bradley, to which the situation is aptly named after.
The Bradley effect came to the fold when despite the former Mayor leading his white Republican opponent for the post of California Governor in all major polls; he ended up losing the race on the Election Day (Porterfield 41).
This was a very realistic threat on the Obama camp especially during the Democratic Party Primaries. Polls had shown that Obama was the most popular among Democratic Party contenders going into the Super Tuesday Primaries.
However, the fear always lingered that perhaps those sampled during the polls were not entirely true in their responses (Porterfield 42). There was a theory floating around that since the country had the first serious African American candidate running for presidency, many did not want to seem anti-progress.
Therefore, during sampling most of those sampled quoted that they would vote for Obama so as to appear progressive in nature (Kenski et al. 58).
The Bradley Effect did not hinder Obama from winning the Democratic ticket as he proceeded to march on to the general election to face Republican challenger, John McCain. However, to many political pundits the Bradley Effect was still a very real threat that Obama and his team had to face.
It was mainly alleged due to that fact that they quoted winning a primary vote as quite different from winning a general election. The reason was that in a party primary, voters are highly partisan and tend to follow the candidate’s charisma and policies.
Here, it was quoted that even Tom Bradley did not have much difficulty securing the nomination to run for Governor of California.
The Obama camp was quick to dispel the possibility of the Bradley Effect affecting the outcome of the general election, citing that there existed fundamental differences between winning a state primary and a national primary (Gensler 5).
Obama’s wife, Michele, appearing in a television interview in early October of 2008, was quoted as denying the probability of the Bradley Effect. The argument she made was that were there to be any Bradley Effect it would have shown up during the primaries, and Obama would not have won as the polls had predicted (Gensler 5).
To this effect, the 2008 election of Barack Obama showed that the social desirability bias phenomenon that had affected Tom Bradley in 1982 had significantly died out two and half decades later.
Based on the demographic outlay of the American society, Barack Obama’s win signified a very fundamental aspect of nationhood, cooperation (Porterfield 54).
In previous presidential elections, it was always going to be a white candidate who emerged as winner, largely due to the perception that the nation had about elections and leadership.
For instance, the minority races in America had always believed, and rightly so, that in order to get elected one had to gain the support of a majority of Americans (Porterfield 58). For the whites, this was not very difficult since politics were mainly driven by racial view and bias.
The fact that the whites also constituted about three quarters of the country meant that the whites continually won popular votes. Among the greatest obstacles that had weighed down previous candidates of colour was that their campaigns were mainly focused on their races (Harris et al. 68).
In addition, their agendas were also mainly based on emotional racial issues that only resonated to one group, such as equality; as opposed to national issues like was the case in Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid.
Obama knew that in order to win the presidency, his message had to be one whose foundation was not strongly anchored on racial interests, but rather on national matters (Payne et al. 370).
By doing this, Obama was not simply viewed as an African American candidate, as others had before him, but rather an American candidate. This enabled him to garner the support of their entire American society cutting across races and ethnicities.
Thus, Obama’s campaign machinery managed to integrate the entire racial profile of the country on a message of change and possibility (Piston 440). Although on winning the presidency Obama only managed to 43% of the populous white vote, his victory provided another extremely crucial aspect of interracial cooperation.
It brought about the cooperation of the minority races who in previous presidential elections rarely voted in large numbers (Porterfield 31).
There had always been a belief held by the minority races in the country that on account of their minimal numbers, their votes did not matter in the overall outcome, thus most usually abstained from voting all together.
However, in Obama’s campaigns and elections, the African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans all came out in numbers; the largest turn out by these groups in any presidential election ever.
It is this participation and cooperation from these groups that allowed Obama to pull away from McCain in the election.
The interracial cooperation also reflected that the country was indeed progressing forward. It had always been a fundamental American belief that all men were created equal and are indeed equal before God.
This sentiment of the American Declaration of Independence had, however, just remained a thought principle and nothing else (Porterfield 53).
Racial discrimination from the time of the formation of the union, throughout the American civil war, until the civil rights movement never reflected that the American society truly believed in equality. However, the election of Obama into the presidency was a strong indication that the country was moving forward.
The election of a black American into office was also indicative of a very important aspect of Americanism, issue-based politics. America had always prided itself of conducting issue-based elections.
This was true, largely because previously candidates vying for presidency stood on the platform of two fundamentally different parties.
The difference, however, was in the fact that all previous main contenders for presidency happened to be white. The foray of Obama into the presidential race had evoked national thought whether the country’s electorate would indeed vote on issues or remain clouded by prejudice.
Barack Obama and John McCain had very different stands on very crucial matters to the electorate. This difference was exhibited in foreign policy matters, economic policies and reforms and issues to deal with America’s military endeavours throughout the world.
The fear was rife that based on the Bradley effect for instance, the electorate could choose to ignore issues and let their votes be clouded by prejudice.
For the first time in history, matters of national importance such as the wars the country was waging and the economic turmoil the country was facing proved to be the determinant factors in the election (Harris et al. 68).
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the US was a strong victory over the negative effects of racism that had always punctuated the American society.
The fact that his candidature was able to circumvent a political system that was, by design, challenging for persons of colour to manoeuvre was indicative of the nation’s progress.
Issues such as white prejudice and racial stereotypes had always historically worked against Americans of colour in their efforts of securing national office. The case of Obama initially seemed destined to fall to such negative impacts.
It was initially thought that social desirability pressures were the only issues that were putting Obama ahead in polls, and many feared that the Bradley Effect would deny the nation its first black president.
However, Obama’s message resonated well with the country, thus ensuring that he garnered interracial support for his campaign to end up as the American President. His election was a major turning point in the American society and marked tremendous positive progress.
The fact that an African American man was elected to office reflects remarkable national progress in that the nation moved beyond skin colour to see leadership qualities in a person. The nation also demonstrated progress by electing a president based on policy issues as opposed to racial prejudice.
Dwyer, Caitlin, et al. “Racism, Sexism, and Candidate Evaluations in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 9.1 (2009): 223-240. Print.
Gensler, Harry. Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Harris, Heather, et al. The Obama Effect: Multidisciplinary Renderings of the 2008 Campaign. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010. Print.
Kenski, Kate, et al. The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
Payne, Keith, et al. “Implicit and explicit prejudice in the 2008 American presidential election.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.2 (2010): 367-374. Print.
Piston, Spencer. “How Explicit Racial Prejudice Hurt Obama in the 2008 Election.” Political Behavior 32.4 (2010): 431-451. Print.
Polsby, Nelson, et al. Presidential Elections: Strategies and Structures of American Politics, 13th ed. New York, NY: Seven Bridges Press, LLC., 2011. Print.
Porterfield, Jason. The Election of Barack Obama: Race and Politics in America. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2010. Print.
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