A cartoon published in the early 1960s depicted a Black boy saying to a White boy: “I’ll sell you my chance to be President of the United States for a nickel.” The cartoon summed up how much most Black people felt the chances of a Black child growing up to be President were worth. At the time the cartoon appeared, Barack Obama was a toddler. There were only five Black Members of Congress and about 300 Black elected officials nationwide. The Voting Rights Act hadn’t been passed and the overwhelming majority of Black Southerners were disenfranchised. It was difficult for anyone to visualize a time when a Black person would be elected to the highest office in the land.
That changed. With the nomination of Illinois Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer for the 2008 presidential campaign, there’s a good chance that a Black man may occupy the Oval Office in the White House this January. This historic nomination is the culmination of a long evolutionary struggle for Black political empowerment that reached a high point when the Civil Rights Movement pressed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That led to the dramatic expansion of the Black electorate. Black people began to fill a broad range of elected posts at every level of government: from sheriff to school board, from mayor to state legislator and on to higher offices such as U.S. Representative, Senator and Governor.
With the power of the ballot, Black voters have achieved major electoral gains throughout our nation. In 2002, there were 9,470 Black elected officials in the United States according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The Old Confederacy states of Mississippi and Alabama had 950 and 757 Black elected officials respectively in a broad variety of positions. The 41 Black members of the U.S. House of Representatives have nearly approached parity in that body compared with the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population.
The growth of a Black presence in America’s political realm has helped Black elected leaders gain acceptance among the general public. Sen. Obama garnered nearly 18 million votes in this year’s primary elections. Americans of all races have looked past his skin color to consider his presidential candidacy on the basis of his vision of inclusive change as a way to move the nation forward as well as his intelligence and political experience.
The question remains, however: Have we arrived at a post-racial era where the election of the President can take place on a “colorblind” basis? Regrettably, race remains a factor in American politics. It is still difficult for Black candidates to win statewide offices—Governor or U.S. Senator—which are threshold positions for a run for the White House. Barack Obama is currently the only Black Senator in Congress and only the fifth Black person to hold that office. And over the history of our nation, there have been only four Black governors.
Candidates for these offices face what may be a daunting campaign appealing to a majority White electorate, a significant component of which may not be open to voting for a Black person. A recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll revealed deep-seated racial misgivings among some Whites toward Blacks and found that one-third of White Democrats harbor negative views toward Blacks—calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles. The poll indicated that these attitudes could affect the outcome of the Presidential election in a close contest.
There is too much at stake in this election to vote against a candidate simply because a nebulous voice deep in one’s psyche may be saying America isn’t ready for a Black President. The next occupant of the White House will set our nation’s priorities for the next four years and beyond. But we cannot move forward without dealing with the issue of race. Barack Obama says: “The legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds, by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations.…” He adds that “Investing in the health, welfare and education of Black and Brown and White children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
The struggle to ensure that our political, economic and social interactions take place on a level playing field began when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence asserting that “all men are created equal.” President Abraham Lincoln exhorted the nation to expand that precept in the Gettysburg Address with the hope that the United States would have a “new birth of freedom.” We’ve come a long way. But, as Barack Obama says: We must “continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America,” and ultimately achieve a more perfect union.