Home / News / Taking Liberties / Obama’s Historic White Victory
Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008

Obama’s Historic White Victory

Google+ Pinterest Print

Understandably, much has been written about how historic President-elect Barack Obama’s election is for African Americans in a country where they were brought in chains. But Obama’s victory was also historic for white Americans who succeeded in breaking the shackles of racism to see through coded racist appeals that have routinely been used to get white working people to vote against their own best interests.

With African Americans forming only 12% of the U.S. population, a whole lot of white folks had to vote for Obama, and it’s a triumph for them too.

No one’s naive enough to believe Obama’s election will end racism in America. But it could be the beginning of the end of racism as a surefire political tactic.

Before the election, we heard more about Tom Bradley, the late mayor of Los Angeles, than we ever did when he was on the political scene back in the ’70s and ’80s. The “Bradley effect” was a catchphrase used to describe the fact that when Bradley, an African American, ran for governor of California in 1982 he was slightly ahead in the late polls, but didn’t win.

There could be all kinds of reasons for that. But the simple-minded explanation widely accepted by the media was that white people told pollsters they were going to vote for a black candidate, but couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

Well, 54% of white voters eagerly chose Obama in Wisconsin in urban, suburban and rural counties all across the state. Nationally, Obama won a majority of the white female vote and came close to splitting the white male vote.

In fact, Obama won more white votes than any Democratic candidate for president since President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Johnson’s election more than 40 years ago was a major turning point in racial politics in this country.

That’s because Johnson, a Southern white politician, led the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, both of which had been blocked for years by his racist, Southern Democratic colleagues.

To its shame, the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, saw racist, Southern whites alienated from Johnson’s Democratic Party as its route to power. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” embraced opposition to civil rights and racial justice, transforming the traditionally Democratic Solid South into the Republican Solid South of recent decades.

Obama’s transcendent political appeal finally shattered that, winning Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, North Carolina and even Florida, where corrupt tactics eight years ago decided the presidential election for the then-governor’s brother.

Coded racist appeals had become a staple of Republican campaigns since Nixon, and this year was no exception.

After Democratic Congressman John Murtha described portions of his western Pennsylvania district as racist, both John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, took turns campaigning there full time. Palin identified certain areas of the country as the “pro-American” parts of America. What those areas had in common was that they were far to the right and blindingly white.

“Small-town values” was another one of those coded phrases. Small towns can be petty, mean-spirited places. But the small towns in Republican imaginations are idyllic paradises where the picket fences are all white and so are the people.

Major Progress Already

Even as polls showed the clearly superior candidate Obama widening his lead, many Obama supporters, black and white, had to see the landslide victory to believe it. That was based on history and low expectations for this country on issues of race. If we can now have higher expectations of ourselves, that in itself is major progress.

Racism has crippled opportunities and expectations for black people in America. It sends them to the worst schools, provides them the worst health care, denies them family-supporting jobs and fast tracks them into the criminal justice system.

But racism also cripples white people in this country. It frightens us into spending enormous amounts of money to build prisons that make crime worse instead of the finest schools that could make all of our futures brighter.

How many more Barack Obamas could our country have produced by now if we hadn’t denied so many of our children equal opportunities on the basis of race and economic circumstance?

On my radio show, I asked Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden if it might take a new administration eight years to dig out of the economic disaster created by Republican trickle-down policies.

Biden said times of great crisis produce great presidents. And he fully expects Obama to be one of the great presidents in history.

Many Americans, black and white, didn’t really believe that the dream of an African- American president, no matter how brilliant and charismatic, would be achieved in our lifetimes. Now, all of us need to get busy dreaming about what we can accomplish together next.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.