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12.11.2008 Feature Article

Obama's Ascension to Power and the Question of Race

Obama's Ascension to Power and the Question of Race

The Reverend Jesse Jackson sobbed; Oprah Winfrey shed tears; many African-Americans cried; and so did many other people from different racial backgrounds engage in some convulsive gasping as Barak Obama delivered an electrifying victory speech in front of over 125, 000 people, who had made it to Chicago's Grant Park to witness an historic event in America's political life.

The atmosphere in Chicago on the night of November 4, 2008 had everything: it was fervid, histrionic, impassioned, enthusiastic, overwrought, and unusually sober. For many African-Americans, this day was too long in coming, having labored through history's darkest periods when their skin color denied them many opportunities. They have been products of a system that has had a toll on their ethos. So, as tears rolled down the cheeks of Jesse Jackson, they summed up not only the joy of the moment, but the eclectic emotional confluence of events going through his and all Blacks' mind.

Obama's story is a compelling one that is only possible in an American society that has been criticized, and rightly so, for its sordid racial past. Obama himself recognized this rare American quality when he said that: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.” Where else would this story have been possible?

This same America gave him good grandparents, the best education in one of the best schools in the world, and the best platform to not only share his story, but inspire a generation of young people to believe that “there is nothing false about hope,” a refrain that assumed greater importance in Obama's two-year journey to the White House. His story is the most unlikely of the many political events of our time, considering that just about four years ago he was unknown, having in his bag—as his only obvious political experience—a speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention.

When the journey began about twenty-one (21) months ago, even his own people (African-Americans) had no shred of hope that he could go as far as he did by Nov. 4. Polls showed that, as of October 2007, even before the Iowa caucus—during the Democratic primaries—he was significantly behind Hillary Clinton in black votes by a 2 to 1 margin. They (Blacks) had seen the Rev. Jesse Jackson fail in his bid before, so had they seen other opportunities slip by. So why would they flog a dead horse?

Thanks to his stunning victory in Iowa over Hillary Clinton, black voters gradually but cautiously joined the Obama train, believing that they could 'steal' victory from Clinton. Interestingly, though, even with victory in the primaries, Obama still faced an uphill task. Being an African-American, he had to do more than any other candidate. First, though, he needed to woo the so-called blue-collar Clinton/Reagan voters who became his nemesis during the primary season. The votes of registered young and Democratic voters alone could not get him to the White House.

Ironically, with a comfortable lead in polls in most of the swing states, coupled with a national lead of between seven and thirteen points, camp Obama was still worried about the so-called Bradley effect. Could the Bradley effect hurt him? The Bradley effect has come to connote a political theory named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, an African-American who ran for California governor in 1982. Polls before the elections showed Bradley leading by a wide margin, but he lost to Republican George Deukmejian. The theory was that polling was wrong because some voters, who did not want to appear bigoted, said they voted for Bradley even though they did not.

Camp Obama's concerns were not without basis. With an unpopular war in Iraq, a sitting president whose approval rating had plummeted to about 20%, an economy that was almost in a recession, an off-the-message McCain campaign, and a Republican brand that was suffering identity crisis, Obama still struggled to make it past the 51% mark in all the polls conducted before the elections. A survey conducted to ascertain who Americans thought would best handle the economy showed that Obama enjoyed almost a 2 to 1 advantage—in terms of support—over McCain and so was the case in all the polls after the three presidential debates.

History has shown that Republicans have enjoyed the last laugh even when polls showed a Democrat was leading—in the polls—right before the elections. In the 2004 presidential elections, for instance, polls showed Kerry had an edge over Bush as was Gore in 2000. Polls even predicted that Kerry would win in Ohio but he still lost. Obama's story was quite different and complicated, because not only is he a Democratic, but he is Black. Thus, while he was in danger of fitting into the usual conventional/stereotypical Democratic losses, he had to be overly-cautious not to be a victim of the Bradley effect that gained so much currency in this year's elections. .

Obama's political organization has been described by some political strategists as one of the most brilliant, sophisticated, and technology-driven campaigns of any generation. His campaign was almost flawless, and it had to be because he could not afford to make the ordinary mistakes any other candidate could make. He could not get angry during debates with either Hillary Clinton or McCain; neither could he afford a display of the emotional disposition that is a function of all human beings. This was crucial for him, because he risked confirming the stereotypes that many people had about Blacks—mainly during the Jim Crow era—that they were aggressive, prone to anger, lazy, physical, and ebulliently hysterical.

I am sure many pundits were ready to call Americans racist if Obama had failed to clinch victory on November 4. Personally, I believe, it would have been a shame if Obama had failed to win the elections, considering that he inspired hope in many people, impeccably made a case for a change in direction of American economic, political, and social policies, and, even before the elections, promised a breath of fresh air in American foreign relations. So, would the tag “racist” have been justified of Americans should Obama have lost? I don't believe it would have been so fair a tag!

There are pockets of racist Americans in America, as there are ethnocentric tribal Ghanaians in Ghana and elsewhere in the world. I watched, spoke with, and read about many Americans who had thought—maybe still think—Obama was an Arab-American or a no-good Black man who did not deserve to have a life let alone stake his claim for the White House. Those are some ignorant, prejudiced, racist individuals or groups who would never have voted for Obama, no matter the length of the campaign season. However, there are others who are just unsure, skeptical, wary, and resistant to a drastic change in political events such as all humans do when an event that beat conventional wisdom takes place. Those who fall in that category are not racist.

The history of the American political life shows that not even once has a Black come close to winning the White House, so while our experiences are replete with claims of interracial, class interactions, it will take the effort of an Obama to set the pace or force open the metal door, which effort will make it easier for others to replicate—even though with little difficulty. In our relatively less heterogeneous society—I mean Ghana—with its history of peaceful tribal co-existence, there are also deep-seated tribal views that can break the fiber of our society, should there be a major problem. I have wondered if an “Agboka” can ever become president of Ghana, because the very cluster of consonants in the name, together with the stigma attached to its origin itself, is a barrier. That is the change we have yet to encounter, but which bridge the American society is crossing. I don't think Americans are that racist—at least not all Americans are!

The American society is the most culturally diverse in the world. This level of diversity is already having a huge impact on the political, economic, and social organization of the country. Already, many disciplines in academia have taken note of this development and are incorporating that in their pedagogies. The United States Census Bureau, which tracks changes in the U.S. population, predicts that the White majority in America will be outnumbered by an ever-growing minority population by 2050. Already, though, the minority population is becoming the “new mainstream” in American political life. Of course these developments do not necessarily mean views have changed, but the U. S. is going through a cultural transformation.

So, can we conclude that racism has been defeated (in America) with the election of Barak Obama and other developments? Maybe we should also find out if our ethnocentric views about those who come from the North (of Ghana) or any other place will subside if someone is elected president from that area. There can be another Bradley effect in America; racism has not been defeated; it is still alive. It will always be there, but the U.S. will surely get there. The American cultural journey has not come full circle yet. There is too much historical baggage to begin celebrating the death of racism in America. In America's journey toward a more just, prejudiced-free, and truly democratic society, however, Obama's election constitutes a milestone. Maybe Ghana can learn a lesson or two from this!

Author: Godwin J. Y. Agboka, USA, Email [[email protected]]

Godwin Yaw Agboka
Godwin Yaw Agboka, © 2008

This author has authored 7 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: GodwinYawAgboka

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