It is fundamentally implausible that a Black man could ever be President of the United States.
And yet, a Black man, a first-term U.S. senator from Illinois with a name from Kenyan descent, has electrified the country and captured international attention with his bid to become the Democratic Party’s 2008 White House nominee. His political success in almost “lily White” Iowa and potential success in upcoming primaries, have boggled the minds of political scientists, pundits, and informed observers alike. Even the GOP candidates are asked to explain “Obamania” and react to this new phenomenon. What is happening here?
There was a time when a Black man with an African or Islamic sounding-name, like Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul Jabaar, was deeply misunderstood.
But in 2007 with Americans disgusted with Capitol Hill gridlock, distrustful of the man who currently occupies the White House, unsettled by an unpopular war, worried about escalating oil and gas prices, buffeted by home losses and a home mortgage crisis, hit by unemployment, fearful of loss of their middle class status, and generally uncertain about the future, a candidate with the name Barack Obama is inspiring hope for meaningful change.
Mr. Obama has made what one commentator called a move for “vertical politics,” not right nor left, but politics aimed at pulling the country together across political and racial lines. Recent presidential elections have seen a divided electorate with Democrats and Republicans searching for that sliver of an advantage to achieve victory.
Instead of trying to slice off a segment of voters for a political win, Mr. Obama has called for expansion of the electorate by urging and inspiring more people, young people in particular, to get involved in the process.
He has risen above crass appeals based on single issues or divisive “us” versus “them” arguments to call on Americans to unite and embrace a willingness to seek common ground for the good of the country.
While Sen. Hillary Clinton was surrounded by the faces of the political old guard when she spoke after Iowa Caucus results were final, a sea of enthusiastic young, old, middle-aged and multi-racial Americans roared their approval of Obama and his call for a new age in U.S. politics.
In this presidential campaign, Sen. Obama “has been groomed, and wisely so, to be seen more as a unifier, rather than one who speaks only for the hurt of Black people. In this, he has tapped the dissatisfaction of many Whites, Blacks, Hispanics and Asians across the spectrum, because who cares what color you are if you can save them from the mess that they find themselves in,” observed the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan in a recent interview with The Final Call.
It appears that American voters are generally fed up with the deceit, the lies, the corruption, the war, the fear-mongering, and the cronyism of the Bush administration. After eight years of ruinous policies perpetrated by the 43rd president, Blacks, Whites, young and old, seem to want fresh, new ideas and thinking in leadership.
While Sen. Obama does not drape himself in the mantle of the nationalist Red, Black, and Green flag of Marcus Garvey, he is acutely aware upon whose shoulders he stands–Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sen. Carole Mosley-Braun, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Dick Gregory, and others.
Sen. Obama had just graduated from Columbia University when the Rev. Jackson launched his historic 1984 Presidential campaign and, according to published reports, once told the Rev. Jackson that watching him debate Walter Mondale and Gary Hart, inspired him.
Rep. Chisholm, a Black congresswoman from New York, made the bold move in 1972 to seek a major party nomination for president. “Catalyst for Change. Chisholm for President ‘72” read one of her campaign buttons. The first Black woman elected to Congress ran as someone who was “unbought, unbossed” and ready to represent all Americans. “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo,” she once said. She wanted change.
Once Rep. Chisholm smashed the glass ceiling, Rev. Jackson further inspired Blacks and others with presidential runs in 1984 and 1988. With his signature themes of “Keep Hope Alive” and “Our Time Has Come,” the civil rights leader stressed the need to expand the base of the party and registered millions of new voters. He was a voice for the voiceless in politics and campaigned against corporate and divisive interests, and for dialogue with the Palestinian people in their quest for justice against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
He spoke to the hurt of the Black community but forged a Rainbow Coalition to seek justice for all. He called for justice for the Palestinians, endured death threats and argued America could be better, stronger and more progressive if everyone had a fair shot at success, and equal opportunity.
Rev. Jackson strode through Iowa cow pastures in overalls, demanded a fair shake for family farmers, better access to health care and economic policies that favored everyday people.
“Leadership must heed the call of conscience, redemption, expansion, healing and unity, for they are the key to achieving our mission. Time is neutral and does not change things. With courage and initiative, leaders can change things,” he said in his 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention.
Black candidates for president have never tried to take the country back to the “good old days,” like Ronald Reagan, their call has always been for more justice, more freedom, true equality, for change.
Mr. Obama’s call is inspiring greater hope and increased grassroots activism. People are starting to believe in the promise, or the potential, of what America could be as a Nation, if she would live up to the true meaning of her creed.“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. And endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Still, as Sen. Obama has talked about “One America,” “the United States of America,” the country’s reality is sadly different. America still suffers from segregation in housing patterns and schools. Blacks and Latinos still lag behind when it comes to income, education, jobs and healthcare. Racial profiling remains a problem and poverty continues to grind away at the lives of those stuck in the ghettos, barrios and trailer parks of America.
In a trade-off for his change and unity message, Sen. Obama has run a race neutral campaign in a year with increased racial violence and high-profile cases of Blacks targeted by law enforcement. That says something about the reality of America.
Even a man who inspires millions and who is described as transcending from an individual into a movement must tread lightly, or not at all, when it comes to matters of race and justice. The pain, the problem, the strife is too deeply rooted in 400 years of the American experience to simply be uprooted by a single political campaign or a lone presidential candidate.
It is in fact up to Black thinkers, leaders, activists and all of us to remind the presidential candidates, senatorial candidates, congressional candidates, gubernatorial candidates, and state legislative candidates, and even mayoral and city council candidates of the need to address the long-unsolved problems in this country.
We must not let down our guard because of a friendly face, or even a face that looks like us that may reside in the White House. We must press our cause and our issues, just as others put forward issues candidates should address. We must forge a Black United Front, organize and galvanize support for our cause and do all that we can to help ourselves.
We must also remember these insightful words from Min. Farrakhan: “There are forces which Sen. Obama may see, or may not see, and these are the forces that kill U.S. presidents when the presidents don’t act as they think the president should act to further their ends; thus the killing of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.
“The forces of racism in this country are still very strong. Even though there is strong mass appeal, if the racist elements in this country thinks that Barack Obama really will be our next president, they may come out of the woodwork if they can’t bend him, and hurt our Brother, and therefore show the country though the masses may say, ‘We like him,’ the forces may say ‘He is not one of us.’ ”
Our hope is that America will take the best of the Obama message, commit herself to and begin the long and arduous journey to reverse her present course, which cannot be done without justice for the children of her ex-slaves and all who still yearn to breathe free.