Create a free Diverse: Issues In Higher Education account to continue reading

Perspectives: Is America Ready to Elect a Black President?

The mere fact that this question is getting asked across the country is an answer unto itself.  

While there is evidence that White Americans support Black candidates running for lower-rung offices, that support does not generally flow up to the upper echelons of government, says Dr. Ronald Walters, former campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, and current professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. 

Walters, like many other experts in African American leadership and politics, is expressing doubt about whether U.S. Sen. Barack Obama — despite all of his oft-cited charisma and cross-racial appeal — can get elected in America. Afterall, half-Black is still Black in this country.  

Obama is a Black man with a Muslim name, though he is not Muslim. The cable news media (especially Fox) and shrill right-wing bloggers are having a heyday with this little fact. They are also harping on the fact that for a short time Obama attended a Muslim school. And, perhaps as another code reference to his race, they are pointing to his resume, saying he has too little experience. Without elevating such an obvious smear campaign, what Obama does have is an expertise in Constitutional law, he’s level-headed enough to be a diplomat and he might have just enough insight into a Muslim culture that could serve the U.S. well during a time of war in Islamic countries.  

The politics of personal destruction is nothing new in the U.S., but it takes a much nastier tinge when it targets a person for the sake of his skin color or religious background. One might have thought the country had progressed in light of former Sen. George Allen’s prompt booting from office after his Macaca remark. But one need only recall that at the same time Allen of Virginia began his name calling, the Republican Party he belongs to also aired a racist television ad to mobilize a significant portion of its supporters to help prevent Democratic Rep. Harold Ford from representing Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. 

These are the kinds of actions that show that many in White America just aren’t ready for a Black man to lead the country. What’s more plausible is that Obama will play second fiddle to one of his White Democratic colleagues, except for Hilary, Walters says. “What’s even more offensive to American sensibilities is to have a woman and a Black on the same ticket,” the political scholar adds. “That won’t happen.”

Unlike Jesse Jackson and a more recent presidential contender, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Obama has never championed traditional Black causes. “Obama does not have roots in the Civil Rights movement, he doesn’t rely on the Black church as his base of support and he sees himself more as a problem-solver than an agitator or an activist,” says Dr. Kerry Haynie, an associate professor of political science who teaches a class on African-American politics at Duke University.  

Obama is attempting to transcend race and party identification, Haynie says. But without substantial support from Black voters, he won’t even get his own party’s nomination, not to mention win in a general election.

To make-up for this, Obama might need to join forces with someone who has more “street” credibility with the Black community, such as former Sen. John Edwards, Walters says.

Walters sees Obama as the vice presidential pick with Edwards at the top of the ticket. 

“By launching his presidential campaign from the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Edwards was speaking directly to the Black community,” Walters says. “I think Obama is smart enough to champion some of the same issues that Edwards is talking about such as poverty, affordable health care and off-shoring of low-wage jobs.”

No matter who presidential nominees are, 2008 promises to be an exciting election year. “For the first time in history Blacks are in an enviable position of having all kinds of legitimate choices,” Walters says.

And for the first time, their support might not turn on race.

Tracie Powell is a freelancer writer who frequently contributes to Diverse.

© Copyright 2005 by

A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics
American sport has always served as a platform for resistance and has been measured and critiqued by how it responds in critical moments of racial and social crises.
Read More
A New Track: Fostering Diversity and Equity in Athletics