Monday, November 27, 2006

Is the United States Really Ready to Elect a President Who Isn't White

By Marc H. Morial, President & CEO, National Urban League

There is no doubt that the 2006 midterm elections have set the stage for some historic developments for women and minorities in the political arena. The Democratic Party's success this past Election Day has paved the way for a number of firsts.

With the party's takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female Speaker of the House, while Rep. Charles Rangel is poised to take over the helm of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee - the first African American to have the job. And in Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under President Clinton, won his bid to become the second elected African American governor in U.S. history after former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, who served in the 1990s.

By the same token, Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, Jr., who ran a remarkable campaign, lost in his bid to become the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction. Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele and former Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swan were all defeated in their respective races for governor. And in Michigan, voters gave affirmative-action foes a victory by approving Proposal 2, which bars use of race- and gender-conscious remedies by state colleges and universities as well as governmental agencies.

But the recent electoral outcomes still beg the question - if the nation is willing to have an African-American lead one of Capitol Hill's most influential committees, a Black female Secretary of State and a female Speaker of the House, is it ready to elect a female and/or African- American to be president?

According to a recent Gallup Survey, the answer is a resounding yes: 58 percent said they believed the United States is ready to elect a Black president and 61 percent - a female. But are voters ready to put their vote where their mouth is?

With more than 9,000 public officeholders nationwide, Blacks have made major progress on the political front since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In 1967, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts became the first popularly elected African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate. In 1969, the Congressional Black Caucus was formed with 13 members. In 1972, New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House, showed that a Black woman could throw her hat into the presidential ring "in spite of hopeless odds" to demonstrate her "sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo."

By 1984, Reverend Jesse Jackson galvanized the black community and liberal democratic base in bringing his candidacy from the fringe to the mainstream within the Democratic Party.

"White folks were indignant that he was running," said Eric Easter, who worked on both of Jackson's campaigns, in a 2003 Village Voice story. "And then black folks got indignant that they were indignant. . . . There was this very strong visceral reaction to his presence in the race, over whether this was the right time and right place for an African American to be, and that galvanized his base."

By 1988, he more than doubled his 1984 results, winning 11 primaries before losing to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. In 1996, Alan Keyes ran for the GOP nod but had better success in 2000, taking 14 percent of votes in the Iowa caucuses and 21 percent in the Utah primary. Some news organizations even declared him the winner of the presidential debates.

In 2004, Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, vied for the Democratic nomination, collecting few delegates.

Not since 1988 has a minority candidate seen Jackson's success. Now, two decades later, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama may be just the candidate to make history.

Largely unknown in 2004, Obama emerged from a very crowded field to win a U.S. Senate primary, paving the way for keynote speaking opportunity at his party's national convention. His performance caused the nation to take note, and his subsequent landslide over Keyes sealed the deal.

A December 2005 article in The New Republic argued that Obama would have his best chance of winning the White House in 2008, with no incumbent president or vice president in the race.

TIME magazine recently put Obama on its cover with the headline -"Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President." An editorial in the Chicago Tribune compared a possible Obama bid to President John F. Kennedy's successful run in 1960.

According to a recent CNN poll, the Illinois Democrat trailed only New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in a list of potential Democratic presidential contenders. Of registered Democrats, he drew support from 17 percent - compared to Clinton's 28 percent. He still outpolled former Vice President Al Gore (13 percent), 2006 Vice Presidential hopeful John Edwards (13 percent) and Sen. John Kerry (12 percent).

On the GOP side, neither Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor Keyes was even included as a possible presidential candidate. But does an African American like Obama or Keyes or even Rice have a realistic chance of taking the White House in 2008 or 2112 or even 2116? Or is the hype just fodder for pundits and journalists?

A study that appeared in the latest Quarterly Journal of Economics concluded that the U.S. electorate is still hesitant about voting Blacks into congressional office. It found that Whites of both major parties are less likely to vote for their parties' candidates when they are Black and that Republicans are 25-percent more likely to cross party lines in senatorial elections when the GOP candidate is Black. And in U.S. House elections, White Democrats are 38-percent-less likely to vote for Black candidates from their own party.

Can Americans really look beyond race and gender when it comes to choosing their national leaders? That remains to be seen. Still, we can be encouraged by the progress. It won't be too long before a person of color or woman does serve our nation's highest office - or at least that is my dream.

Marc H. Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, this business about Obama being a serious 2008 candidate is all a fantasy. Perhaps VP, but there is 0 chance he is our next pres. All this talk is for his book and for the media to sell newspapers (or get viewers)...