Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Politics: A Post-Racial Era?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In looking through the exit poll data from the 2008 Presidential election, one thing stands out. While Barack Obama won or tied amongst men, women, independents, all income levels (if taken in $50,000 steps), all education levels, new and repeat voters, all racial and ethnic groups except whites, all religious affiliations except protestants, and all age groups except those 65 and older, for most of these categories, the vote was reasonably close. The only major categories in which Obama won more than 70% of the demographic were Democrats, self-identified liberals, and African-Americans. It's hard to make the statement that this was a post-racial election when only one in every twenty African-Americans voted for any candidate other than Barack Obama.

It's nothing new for the Democrats to receive a disproportionate percentage of the African-American vote. Bill Clinton and Al Gore both received 80% or better of that demographic. It's not correct to say that Obama won the election on the basis of his margin amongst this group that makes up only 13% of voters--he would have lost only about a percent of his overall vote if he had only polled as well as Al Gore. It is true that the 95% figure is unprecedented--African-Americans as a group were more likely to vote for Obama than self-identified Democrats.

What this underscores is not that race explicitly mattered in this election--it's really impossible to say if it did, as it was hard to divorce Obama's bi-racial background from his overall appeal to all voters, and I haven't seen a poll that has tried. The importance of the election is not that it was different racially in itself, but that the election of person with African-American background presents the opportunity for future change. Just as John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was an issue in the 1960, it has not been a significant issue for Catholics ever since--many voters did not even know that John Kerry, for example, was Catholic. Now that Barack Obama has been elected and the barrier has been broken, it might be possible for race to become a non-issue in future elections.

Unfortunately, the racial divide in the United States seems to be much deeper than religious divides, so it will take much greater effort for the race of a candidate to become a non-issue. Race is different than some other interpersonal divides like religion and sexual orientation because it cannot be hidden. Unless it has been buried in my history books, Catholics did not suffer from death threats as a result of John F. Kennedy's election. African-Americans have gotten them as a result of Barack Obama's.

The most widely-distributed article running around summarizing the issue was written by Jesse Washington of the Associated Press. It describes incidents from Georgia to Maine to Idaho of threats being made on Obama himself or local African-Americans being investigated by the Secret Service or the FBI. The bottom line was stated by hate crime monitor Mark Potok: There is "a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them."

Hope, of course, comes from the likelihood that many of the people that currently feel that way are going to come to the realization that with an African-American president, pretty much everything they know is actually going to be the same, and nothing is going to be stolen from them. For all the rhetoric about change from the Obama campaign, when all is said and done, there likely won't be all that much change, and what changes do occur might well benefit the person holding racist views.

There is really only one way to get over fear about differences between people of whatever nature--interaction. The best way is one-on-one interaction, which will never happen with the President of the United States. However, the more people see the Obama family--as they did on 60 Minutes on Sunday--the more they are going to realize that the Obamas are essentially as "normal" as can be.

The election of Barack Obama in and of itself doesn't usher in a post-racial era. What it does do is provide the opportunity to move in that direction. It is a step, not an end unto itself.

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