05 November 2008

A post on Obama

I strongly supported Barack Obama for President, although he was not originally my first choice for the Democratic nomination (John Edwards was), and I am very pleased about his victory. His concrete policy suggestions seem to me sounder and more practical than those of any recent candidate; he numbers among his advisors several people for whom I have immense respect (Samantha Power, Cass Sunstein, and Bill Richardson, among others); and his academic credentials are a refreshing change from the dominant anti-intellectualism of American politics.

During the election, however, I was so focused on the policy differences between him and Senator McCain -- and the importance of drawing a line under the Bush administration's war on the Constitution -- that the sociological importance of his election didn't really sink in until I read a post written by an Obama opponent, David Bernstein, at the Volokh Conspiracy: "The End of White Supremacy":
What was unique about American post-slavery prejudice against African Americans, as opposed to the prejudice against other groups, was that it manifested itself in a system of white supremacy that dictated that blacks always be placed in an inferior position to whites. In the South, this was formalized under the law by Jim Crow statutes, and also enforced by lynchings and "whitecapping" against "uppity" black business owners and others who "didn't know their place."

Obama's victory tells us that in case anyone had any doubt, the ideology of white supremacy is over and done with, kaput. Again, while blacks still face a fair amount of prejudice, there's a big difference between prejudice and a widespread ideology among the majority population that members of a particular group must be kept in "their place," by custom, law, and violence. "Their place," in effect, is now all the same positions whites occupy, up to and including the most powerful office in the land.
I should not want to say, as Bernstein does, that "the ideology of white supremacy is over and done with". I am by no means that sanguine about the state of organized racism in America.

But, after reading his article, and after Obama's triumph in Virginia and narrow victory in North Carolina, I keep thinking about a fact so obvious that it never even occurred to me to remark upon it explicitly during the campaign: that it would have been simply inconceivable for a black man to carry any statewide presidential ballot in the South I grew up in, in the 1980s. That was the South of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond -- living monuments to Jim Crow who survived the end of segregation with trivial ease simply by exchanging overt racial demagoguery for coded attacks so obvious that any child could figure them out.

No, Obama's victory certainly does not signal the end of racism, nor even the end of explicit racism (if you don't believe me, you need only google "Philip Berg" -- a nutcase whom I mentioned in an earlier post -- and have a look at the sort of venomous nativism and Bull Connor fantasies on offer on a few thousand comment boards).

But it is still an extraordinary moment, one I should not have believed possible even fifteen years ago, and it makes me, malgré tout, hopeful for the future of the country.


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