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The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America heralded the beginning of a new chapter in the country. America was always bound to, someday, shake off the endemic racism that plagued the country and put in office a racially diverse person (Kenski et al. 5).
Perhaps no race was more excited about the election of Obama to the presidency than the African Americans whose integration into the American mainstream society was punctuated by slavery and other civil rights oppressions. Despite the abolition of slavery, the African Americans still struggled to gain acceptance in the American society.
The derived social justice that slave abolition brought amounted to very little without the voting rights, political representation and racial liberties that still eluded the minority races (Kenski et al. 7). The push for the civil rights movement was, to the most part, driven by a need to rid America of the endemic racial shortcomings that denied persons of color rights that other Americans enjoyed freely (Dwyer et al. 223).
The 2008 candidature of Barack Obama was in no way the first stab at the national office by an African American. Many had tried and had various rates of success by winning elections into state legislatures, local councils, state governorship, state senate, US congress, and even the US senate. A few such as Rev. Jesse Jackson had also tried to contest the presidency.
However, the candidature of Obama represented the first real opportunity that a person of color got to ascend into the nation’s highest office (Kenski et al. 15). This paper examines how racial undertones and outright racism influenced the election of Barack Obama into office.
The approach that is taken begins with the more general aspects of American presidential politics, before narrowing down to the specifics that president Obama’s election represented. These specifics include white prejudice, the Bradley Effect and the national progress that the country has achieved as a result of this monumental event.
American Presidential Elections
The way the American presidential system was set up is one of the greatest marvels in the leadership structure of a huge democracy (Polsby et al. 89). During the founding of the nation, the founding fathers were more interested in providing equal access to the Presidency for persons in all the states in the union, hence the adaptation of Electoral College votes.
However, what this did was to essentially make all states have an equal voice in determining who ascends to the Presidency. However, societal weaknesses in the form of racial inequality in the nation after nearly 200 years of democracy revealed the soft underbelly of the system. The election of the president had only been fine-tuned to represent state equality rather than the equality of all persons (Polsby et al. 136).
Despite the changes that resulted after the civil rights movement such as rights to vote, the two-party presidential system proved a daunting task for minorities to maneuver (Dwyer et al. 225). In order to get a shot at the Presidency in the general elections, a person of color had to achieve what had seemed impossible first; win their party’s candidature during the primaries (Polsby et al. 217).
By finding it nearly impossible to go past the first few rounds of the primaries, the nation had shown that it would be difficult for a person of color to become the president.
The reality was that even at the party level, Americans were skeptical of giving their party’s nomination to a person of color as this was seen as a concession to the other side (Hardy-Fanta et al. 16). Therefore, by winning the Democratic Party’s nomination, Obama had cleared the first hurdle though he had to face many more hurdles ahead.
Among the greatest hindrances to persons of color ascending to the presidency has been the country vis-à-vis white prejudice (Payne et al. 369). This prejudice is not hard to comprehend since the American electoral system happens to be a democracy in which the majorities have their way (Htun 441).
In terms of the country’s demographic spread, whites constitute nearly 75% of the populace, with Hispanics at 13% and blacks at around 12.5% (Piston 432). As a result of these statistics, the race with the majority tends to win in elections, especially in a country that was as racially charged as the US.
This form of ‘majority wins’ has played out in virtually all aspects of the American electoral system whereby racial representation is at best wanting. This trend is pretty evident when one takes a closer look at state legislatures and the US Congress where the representation of minority groups is way behind those of the whites (Hardy-Fanta et al. 6).
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Whites comprise 361 representatives, while blacks, Hispanics and Asians constitute 44, 25 and 7 respectively. In the Senate, out of the total 100, the whites comprise 96 with 2 for both Hispanics and Asians and none for the blacks.
The white prejudice that has made it difficult for persons of color to take up leadership positions has existed in the US since the founding of the nation. This prejudice was normally based on heavy racial stereotyping that had effectively served to relegate the minority groups, especially the blacks, into a lower class than the rest of America (Htun 443).
Therefore, the greatest hindrances that existed to persons of color were the racial stereotypes that were driven by both implicit and explicit prejudice. The explicit prejudice was implemented in the form of ‘separate but equal legislation’ which enforced racial discrimination (Payne et al. 373). Due to the tireless efforts of the civil rights movements, these ‘separate but equal laws’ were eventually eliminated.
However, the truth was that although the letter of the law had changed to include equal rights, the spirit was still limiting in favor of the liberated races. Barack Obama, for instance, had to struggle against some of the effects during the Democratic Primaries in 2008 (Piston 434).
Implicit prejudice had greater effects in the country’s south were racial differences, especially black and white, have traditionally been much more pronounced (Htun 441). Political analysts and watchers during the 2008 elections warned that these strong racial undertones would make it difficult for Obama to win there (Kenski et al. 235).
The extent of this implicit prejudice had been a major challenge to the campaign team of Obama starting in the primaries where he struggled to perform well. Even after winning the Democratic nomination, in the elections Obama only managed to garner 43% of the populous white vote despite the entire nation rallying behind his message (Piston 432).
The white prejudice was also responsible for perpetrating negative racial stereotypes to the effect that other races, other than the whites, were simply not American enough (Kenski et al. 220). For instance, Obama’s Kenyan roots had been a major point of attacks, albeit in murmurs and undertones among persons who wanted to promote negative racial stereotyping.
However, this problem was not unique to Obama. In a nation of racial diversity such as the US, many individuals proudly associated with their roots. For instance, Hispanics were very proud of their Latin American descent from places such as Cuba and Mexico. The same was the case for the whites who normally cited their ethnic heritage with pride.
Many were, for instance, very quick to point out their Irish, Italian or Scottish heritage without any semblance of un-Americanism being thrown their way.
However, for minorities, the situation was different with one’s heritage being associated with un-Americanism (Htun 450). The resulting stereotype was the view that a white American president was seen as representing the best interests of the entire country, but not for other races (Porterfield 22).
Electing a black man to the presidency was viewed by many as not being for the best interest of the entire country, but rather for those of his race (Harris et al. 19). This was a considerable challenge to Obama’s campaign as he was viewed as being the black candidate.
Obama had to overcome such stereotypes and not be seen as championing the cause of the African Americans, but rather of the entire American society. This was also problematic to him because many pundits during Obama’s primary victories were only concerned with analyzing his possible performances based on the racial profile of the states, where the primaries were taking place (Harris et al. 76).
The Bradley Effect
The Bradley Effect was a phenomenon that had negatively affected the performance of black candidates in past elections in America. It resulted when polls consistently showed a black candidate leading only to lose out on the race on the Election Day (Porterfield 41). The Obama camp was very skeptical of such a prospect, especially once polls started to show that he had pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in the primaries.
The fear was that many of those sampled professed that they would vote for the black candidate because it was the politically correct thing to do (Kenski et al. 58). However, after winning the primaries and gaining the nomination, the Obama campaign insisted that the Bradley Effect would not occur since they equated the extensive nature of the primaries to the general election (Gensler 5).
By going on to win the November polls, Obama demonstrated that the country had overcome the social desirability phenomenon that was the basis for the Bradley Effect.
Obama’s win in the polls was a major indication of the country’s progress (Porterfield 54). This progress was as a result of the kind of candidature that Obama presented to the electorate. For once in the history of America, a candidate of a difference race had managed to win overwhelming support from the whites.
The reason was because Obama, unlike other previous candidates of color, had not focused his campaign on his race (Harris et al. 68). Instead, Obama’s focus was on overall unifying issues that affected all Americans, such as the crumbling economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His victory was, therefore, a triumph of ideas and principles over racism and negative stereotyping.
The issue-based victory of Obama showed that the country had reached a point in which race ceased to be the chief determinant with regard to candidates of color. Obama’s election also offered the US an opportunity to truly practice one of their most distinctive principles; that of the equality of all men as envisaged in the American Declaration of Independence.
The 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama was a major show of the country’s racial progress. It was indeed a culmination of the nation’s clamor for racial equality, which had gone through very challenging periods such as the civil rights movement. Obama’s message and policies enabled him to navigate a presidential system that was against persons of color effectively.
He did this by first winning the Democratic primaries, after which he strategically placed himself in a manner that no other candidate of color before him had done. However, Obama and his campaign team knew very well that winning the primaries was just the first step. A lot had to be done to overcome barriers such as white prejudice, negative racial stereotyping and the ever present threat of the Bradley Effect.
Obama did this in astounding fashion by first being able to overcome the barriers that both implicit and explicit white prejudice put in front of him. Next, he navigated past negative racial stereotyping such as those referring to his candidature as simply a black thing by not making his campaign focus be that of his race, but rather on issues.
Obama managed to overcome the Bradley Effect by winning both the primaries and the general elections. Overall, by electing a black man into office, America showed remarkable national progress by looking beyond skin color and race and, instead, focusing on personal attributes.
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