Publication Date

April 1, 2009

We all understand that it is too early to gauge the historical significance of Obama’s victory last November. Scholars many years from now will (we hope) gain access to relevant documents and oral interviews, and they will also have the broad arc of history to help them assess the long-range effects of the election on U.S. and world history. However, it is certainly appropriate today that we acknowledge theunprecedented nature of Obama’s victory—the election to the U.S. presidency of the first black man in the nation’s history. In 1965, many African Americans in this country could not even vote, and too many today continue to bear the burdens of slavery’s legacy. So I think that we should begin by stressing that this election was truly remarkable—and in all likelihood we can all agree that that fact is beyond dispute—beyond discussion, really.

Among the intriguing questions that are open to debate are those that deal with “race”—or rather the idea of race—as factors in Obama’s win. We can look at that question from several angles.

For example, some might claim that Obama’s African heritage had very little impact on his successful campaign for the presidency. Indeed, it can be argued, any Democrat who survived the grueling primary season would have won. The deck was stacked in Obama’s favor, simply because he won his party’s nomination. President Bush’s approval ratings were at historic low levels. In the fall, the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered a financial crisis that quickly metastasized into the worst meltdown since the great Depression. And Senator John McCain ran a strikingly inept campaign, one that evoked both the Cold War of the 1980s and the culture wars of the 1990s—an attempt to divide the country into warring camps: us v. them, straight v. gay, native-born v. immigrant, rural v. urban folks, conservatives v. liberals, “Real Americans” v. all the rest. Predictably, McCain’s campaign failed to resonate in 21st-century, multicultural America, a country yearning to overcome the divisions of the past eight years and move forward to confront a host of urgent challenges. In other words, the economic crisis, combined with the divisive rhetoric of the McCain- Palin team, rendered Obama’s African heritage, and the color of his skin, largely irrelevant to his win at the ballot box.

At the same time, the primaries and the presidential campaign demonstrated a number of intriguing twists and turns, as the Republican Party grappled with a formidable opponent who happened to be African American. At various points Republican politicians and political operatives accused both Michelle and Barack Obama of being “uppity.” The McCain campaign also pressed the idea that Obama was a vacuous celebrity akin to Paris Hilton—in other words, that he was only a song-and-dance man, an entertainer for the amusement of the gullible masses. These prejudicial statements coalesce around the notion that black people should remain “in their place” and leave governing to whites, themes time-honored over the span of American history. At the same time, we should note that Obama’s own story departed in certain ways from the overarching narrative of African American history: his forebears were not enslaved laborers in this country, and unlike the vast majority of African Americans, he does not trace his ancestral roots to the southern United States.

I’d also like to consider the self-congratulation among a certain segment of the white population that Obama’s victory signaled a transformation in American “race relations.” I heard that claim at various celebrations on election night. Then on November 7, the Gallup Poll published a story to the same effect under the headline “Americans See Obama Election as Race Relations Milestone.” Among the pollsters’ findings:

“Over two-thirds of Americans say Barack Obama’s election as president is either the most important advance for blacks in the past 100 years, or among the two or three most important such advances.”

After Obama’s victory, “67 percent of Americans say a solution to relations between blacks and whites will eventually be worked out, the highest value Gallup has measured on this question.”

Seven out of 10 Americans “believe that race relations in this country will get at least a little better as a result of Obama’s election, including 28 percent who say they will get a lot better.”

In conclusion, “The data reviewed also show that Americans believe Obama’s election represents a highly significant milestone in the history of race relations in this country.”

This report brings together two stubborn and highly suspect trends in modern American history—public opinion polling and the ubiquitous use of the term “race relations.”

What do we mean by an improvement of race relations within our highly segregated—in some respects even hypersegregated—society? After all, many Americans today live, work, worship, and go to school with people like themselves in terms of the color of their skins and the income of their households. Does an “improvement in race relations” thus mean that white people will suddenly treat their few black co-workers, neighbors, co-religionists, and classmates with more respect than in the past? Or that white majority districts will be more likely than in the past to vote for black candidates for public office?

More pertinent is the fact of structural inequality as a legacy of the institution of slavery that shaped this country’s history for two centuries—the fact that many black households today bear witness to that legacy through disproportionately low levels of formal education and net worth, and through high rates of unemployment and chronic underemployment. In 2007, one-quarter of all black people lived in poverty, compared to a national poverty rate of 10 percent. Yet these figures underestimate the persistent effects of slavery; by my rough calculation even before the current economic crisis, at least 25 percent of all U.S. families were living on the thin edge of distress—just a health-care emergency away from utter disaster. And if the percentage for blacks is correspondingly high, we can estimate that half of all African Americans were impoverished or at best living paycheck to paycheck.

What then does Obama’s election have to do with the plight of the black poor? Will his policies substantially reverse the generations-long forces of dispossession and immiseration that have taken such a heavy toll on black communities throughout the nation? Will his public works program, focused on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure of roads and bridges, have a measurable impact on the well-being of blacks in center cities and in southern rural areas? Or will those projects reflect the racist history of the construction industry and the construction unions?

In other words, does Obama’s election represent the elevation of a single person to the highest elected office in the land, while at the same time large numbers of black people not only remain vulnerable not only to the structural legacies of the past, but also face desperate times due to disastrous economic conditions today?

A case can be made for the idea that many blacks, as the most vulnerable of all American citizens will suffer sooner and more profoundly than whites in the current economic downturn. Certainly the distinguishing characteristics of this crisis—rising unemployment and foreclosure rates—are bound to affect poor people of color in dramatic ways. Here we might note the effect of the contraction of public and private economies on those jobs that have historically provided blacks with a path out of poverty and into the middle class—manufacturing (and the auto industry in particular), and public employment for teachers, bus drivers, and others.

It is also possible that blacks—as well as immigrants, documented and undocumented—will find themselves the victims of scapegoating in these perilous times. Over the generations, whites have tended to see the world in zero-sum terms: If blacks gain—by getting good jobs and winning equal rights—then whites lose accordingly. History thus suggests that the recession will heighten social tensions and bring to the fore historic ideologies of social difference—the most insidious and deadly of which in this country have been racial ideologies.

But again, we historians are not prophets or prognosticators. So my simple answer to the question “Was Obama’s win historic?” is that we know that his win was unprecedented and remarkable, but its true significance will not be clear for some time. And then, knowing historians, even then it will not be so clear that we can all agree. Which is to say, I suggest we convene again in 50 years and take another stab at answering this question.

—Jacqueline Jones holds the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas and the Mastin Gentry White Professorship of Southern History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent work is Saving Savannah: The City and the Civil War, published in 2008 by Alfred A. Knopf.

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