Obama’s Election Breaks the Ultimate Barrier

By Kollengode S Venkataraman  (Published in January 2009)

Sen. Barack Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election is the grand finale in the long list of man-made barriers broken in the US since 1776. Consider these:

1. Legal barriers in the US prevented women from owning property and businesses in the 17th and 18th centuries. Married women didn’t have rights to execute their will. Women could not vote till 1920.

2. Branch Rickey, the general manager of Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 ended the 60-year old Color Line in major league baseball by bringing in Jackie Robinson, a multi talented black athlete. Rickey told Robinson “he would face tremendous racial animus from spectators, and insisted he should not take the bait and react angrily.”  When Robinson asked, “Do you want a player afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I need a Negro player with the guts not to fight back.” Robinson agreed. Robinson went on to become a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer. (Source: Wikipedia)

3. President Harry Truman after the Second World War integrated the armed forces and ended the racial barriers in the military.

4. Till the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted under President Lyndon Johnson, the Poll Tax barrier prevented poor blacks from voting.

5. The other race-based barriers crumbling during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are well known.

6. The 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education ended racial school segregation and broke another barrier. Incidentally, Thurgood Marshall was the black lawyer arguing the case against school segregation. His appointment later by President Johnson as a US Supreme Court justice broke another barrier. He was the first black justice in the US Supreme Court. Johnson’s imprints are deep in changing the social fabric of the US.

These barriers were removed either by law passed by mostly white elected representatives, or by edicts by individuals — Truman, Johnson, Rickey, Supreme Court Justices — of extraordinary fortitude to end blatant, socially accepted discriminations against women and blacks. 

After this, it was only a matter of time that cities with large black populations would elect black mayors: Tom Bradley (LA 1973), Maynard Jackson Jr. (Atlanta 1973), Harold Washington (Chicago, 1983), and David Dinkins (New York, 1989) are the first black mayors in these cities.

Blacks winning state-wide elections, however, would take much longer. Strangely, of all the states, it was the very “Southern” Virginia (19% black population) that elected the first black governor, Douglas Wilder, in 1989. Virginia was seat of the Confederacy power.

Coming in this tradition, Obama’s victory in the presidential election broke the ultimate barrier in US social/political history. Nationwide, only ~12% of the population is black. A majority of voters – whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, with whites forming the overwhelming majority in a nation-wide election, opted for the charismatic, sophisticated, well-educated, and articulate Barack Obama, making him the first black man to occupy the White House and the Oval Office.

The self-assured Obama had confidence in American voters. Only once did he refer to his racial identity in stump speeches, that too obliquely, when he jocularly said he doesn’t “look like the other guys on dollar bills.” His Philadelphia speech on race relations in America during the primaries is too cerebral to be called a stump speech.

Obama was helped by McCain’s lackluster campaign. In September when the stock market tanked, the McCain campaign’s bottom fell. The choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as running mate only made matters worse for McCain towards the end.

The challenges ahead are daunting for Obama and the nation: American credibility under Bush is at an all-time low globally; the nation is in the midst of big financial woes at every level – among individuals, in small businesses, gilded boardrooms, municipal, state and federal governments; an aging population with under-funded social programs; huge military budgets (See the box on the next page)… …

The status quo is simply unsustainable, and if continued, will certainly weaken the republic even further. To avoid further damage, ideally, every interest group will have to give in something. However, given the power of lobbies on elected officials and bureaucrats, this will not happen. The final outcome could very well be ugly. So, even if Obama delivers  only 40% of what he promised, we should be pleased.

If history is any indication, Obama’s administration will have its share of scandals. We hope they are minor and manageable not to overwhelm his big ideas or the economic mess we are in.

All that we can say for now is, Godspeed Obama!   — END


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