Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Does it matter that Obama is black

The election of Barack Obama as President of the US was momentous and filled with historic firsts. The first black President of the US, the first woman moose-killing candidate running for Vice-President, and a record turnout of voters eager to make their mark on history. Importantly, and probably the first time in the Western world, the issue of race was also central to the election campaign.

Throughout the election, there was much talk of the Bradley effect. This is the tendency of white voters when choosing between a white or black candidate to tell pollsters that they will vote for the black candidate; however, when they enter the voting booth, they vote for the white nominee. In other words, when polled many white voters do not want to appear racist and, therefore, claim their preference is for the black candidate even if this is not the case.

What was interesting, however, was that there was little evidence of the Bradley effect in the election. In fact, the opposite might have happened. Some Republicans who said they would vote for McCain might well have decided at the last minute to vote for Obama. Obama got more white votes than most of the previous Democratic nominees. So does this mean race no longer matters in US politics?

I heard one commentator talk about a new “post racial” period in the US. What he meant by this was that race was no longer the electorate’s first point of reference. Rather it was competence and policies that drew people to politicians, not to mention the failures of previous governments.

This should be what we strive for the world over, but race, unfortunately, is still an issue. The fact that thousands of African-Americans turned out to vote, many because there was an African-American candidate, and the unambiguous elation many felt at electing a black man specifically suggest that race is still extremely important to many Americans.

The election of Obama shatters the myth that there is a racial ceiling in American politics. But Obama’s story is the exception rather than the norm. A 2008 United Nations Habitat report that focused on the state of the world’s cities found that race was still one of the most important factors determining levels of inequality in the US, as it is in many other societies. Electing a black President does not eradicate the legacy of inequality and discrimination that still affects contemporary life.

The ideal situation would be that Obama’s race, or anyone’s for that matter, is of no significance in politics. The fact that the Bradley effect did not come into play suggests that race is not as big an issue as before. However, at the same time, pretending that Obama’s Presidency has now moved the US into a “post racial” period is somewhat premature. Some real work remains to be done.

That said, I do not think we should undermine the importance of what has happened. Hope needs room to breathe and should not be crushed with cynicism at this early stage. If nothing else, it is of massive symbolic importance in the US and globally that the most powerful man on earth is black.

Of course, race needs to remain on the table and will need to be continually addressed in the US and elsewhere. I hope Obama uses his position to raise the issues of racial inequality and racism in the US and elsewhere, especially in relation to Africa.

But before raising even higher expectations of what Obama can achieve, I want to take pleasure in the wave of optimism that has swept the world through his rise to power. Whatever happens next, Obama’s story is inspirational and demonstrates, despite all the structural impediments in society, that sometimes individuals can change the world, and affect their and other people’s destiny in the process.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, November 2008. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 14 November 2008