What the Obama victory shows

By Barry Sheppard, San Francisco

As has been widely noted, the election of an African-American as president of the United States is an historic event. This is true irrespective of the politics and perspectives of Barack Obama. That a black family will occupy the White House, which was built by black slaves, is a powerful symbol.

The four-hundred-year history of African-Americans in the United States spans the time of slavery, the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction, the reaction beginning in the 1870s that instituted the Jim Crow segregation system through terror, and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s that overthrew Jim Crow, up to the present.

There is no question that without the victory of the civil rights movement, which liberated the South from legal apartheid, and its effect throughout the North, no black person could have been elected to the US presidency. It was this victory that changed over time the way black Americans are viewed by whites, to the extent that tens of millions of whites felt able to vote a black person into the country’s highest public office.

On election night, when it was clear that Obama had won, there were celebrations among African-Americans everywhere. TV shots showed many in tears of joy. The following day, my next-door neighbour, who is black and somewhat conservative, greeted me with the Black Power fist salute, and said: “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime!”

It is always difficult to see underlying trends through the distorting lens of capitalist elections, especially in the US with its system of two openly capitalist parties holding nearly identical views. But I think certain things are discernable. The first is what I have already alluded to, the diminution of racist attitudes among many whites. Polls showed this was more pronounced among young whites. While Asians, Latinos and especially African-Americans (by 95%) voted for Obama, without making important inroads among whites he would have lost. The second is renewed confidence among black Americans that they can change things. Whether this manifests itself in new struggles in the months and years ahead remains to be seen.

It should be noted that while racism among whites has diminished, racism remains powerful, and racial oppression remains institutionalised throughout the country. Obama won 53% of the vote, smaller than would be expected given the low level of support to outgoing President George Bush’s discredited administration and the extent of Democratic Party victories in the congressional elections. Whites are increasingly polarised on race.

By institutionalised racial oppression, I mean the facts of housing and job discrimination, and the resulting disparities between blacks and whites in education, unemployment, life expectancy, average income and so forth. It is these sorts of issues a new black liberation movement would have to take up, issues which relate to the whole working class.

The third thing I think we should note in the election is the impact of the deepening economic downturn. It was this that swung many white workers, who never thought they would vote for a black person, to vote for Obama against Republican candidate John McCain. They hope that a Democrat will do better on the economy than Bush has. This factor, which only began to be reflected in polls at the end of the campaign, tipped the scales in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and the Southern states of Virginia and North Carolina, as well as others. High hopes have been raised among black, Latino, Asian and white workers that an Obama administration will do something to help them as the economy spirals downward.

The economic crisis and the Wall Street bank bailouts have enraged working people. It is a kind of primitive radicalisation, a new sense that something is very wrong with the system. But this is causing a sharp polarisation among whites, too. McCain tapped into this with his own denunciations of “Wall Street” and “the government” coupled with thinly disguised, but loud and shrill, appeals to racism.

That racism remains deep among many millions of whites has been reflected in expressions of deep anger that Obama was elected, some documented on mainstream TV. This is especially true in the South, but has manifested across the country. There have been “hundreds” of incidents of cross burnings, racial epithets scrawled on cars and homes, Black figures hung from nooses, and other incidents according the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, since the election.

Some of these included the admission by four North Carolina State University students that they spray-painted “let’s shoot that nigger in the head.” In a rural general store in Maine, a sign read “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool,” where people could make bets as to the day Obama would be killed (“Stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count”). Second graders on a school bus in Idaho chanted “assassinate Obama”.

Most incidents have occurred in the South, including one church marquee that denounced Obama as a “Muslim” who will install a “wicked” government. The South was governed by a wing of the Democratic Party, up until the mid-1960s, known as the “Dixiecrats”. They enforced the Jim Crow system and were part of Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition in the 1930s and ‘40s, supporting his “social-democratic” economic policies in return for his support of Jim Crow.

But when the national Democratic Party came out for civil rights legislation under the impact of the black movement in the mid-1960s, the Dixiecrats became Republicans. Many whites deeply resented that the federal government had “imposed” on them the dissolution of apartheid. Beginning with Richard Nixon in 1968, the Republicans launched their “Southern strategy” to appeal to white racists there, which helped them win national as well as state and local elections. The “Southern strategy” took some blows in this election, with Virginia and North Carolina defecting to Obama.

With the new confidence among blacks and other non-whites, in the context of the “primitive radicalisation” of tens of millions of workers including whites, I believe we are entering a new period. How long this gestation period lasts before we see new explosive struggles remains to be seen. It took from the stock market crash of 1929 until the first battles in 1934 before there was an upsurge of workers’ struggles in the 1930s.

We have seen one positive step forward in the context of a defeat registered in the election. Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution in California that took away the right to marry for gay men and lesbians that the California State Supreme Court had affirmed earlier in the year, passed by 52% in a referendum. But gays, lesbians and their supporters didn’t take this lying down. There were immediate militant demonstrations across the state, organised by amateurs through the internet. On November 15, there were some 300 demonstrations in cities in every state, often targeting the Mormon church which poured tens of millions into the effort to pass Proposition 8.

The effect of these mass actions was to cause a split in the Prop 8 forces between the openly anti-gay groups and the covert ones, who began to bleat that they were not anti-gay rights in general but only on this issue. (The “moderate” ads for Prop 8 appealed to fears that gays and lesbians seek to “convert” children to homosexuality.) Does this militant outpouring reflect a new mood of confidence that the powers that be can be opposed in a meaningful way? I hope so.