Obama is presumably more Afro-American than his black contemporaries as he is half white and half first-generation Kenyan and not the descendant of eighteenth century Africans brought as slaves from West Africa.
Nevertheless as a citizen of Hawaii and then Chicago and a student on the Ivy League campuses of the US, he adopted the stance of a “brother” — a label one associates with cool and an ability to dance.
Nevertheless the election of Barack Obama is seen as the culmination of the struggle for civil rights that began with slave revolts of the earlier centuries and was revived in modern times as the fight for civil rights and the concomitant demand for the economic and social advance of the Afro-American communities of the USA.
One of the first organisational impulses of the black movement for civil rights was the drive to register as voters. It betrayed a faith in the democratic systems of the country, a conviction that the ballot box could be used to fulfil political aims. Since the Sixties and through the Seventies and Eighties, the black community used its numbers in several states and cities to nominate and elect black mayors, senators and congressmen.
Several notorious figures were elected, snared by the policing authorities for corruption and prosecuted. The response from the black communities was «yes, he’s a crook but he’s our crook!» It was a characterisation of US politics being crooked and, in the particular instance, just being crooked for the benefit of a black man. Business as usual with a racial twist.
The ideological impulse of this early movement was to strike out against “racism”. New definitions were born. Relegating black people to the seats at the back of buses and preventing them from entering public facilities such as restaurants was obvious racism, obvious apartheid.
- Vivian Malone registering for classes at University of Alabama.
In June 1963 two blacks in Alabama, Vivian Malone and James Hood attempted to enrol as students at the university. The Governor of Alabama, a professed segregationist called George Wallace stood at the door to the University to bar their entry. A federal judge, prompted and supported by President John F. Kennedy his brother Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General at the time, ordered the university to enrol the students. Federal marshals were sent to Alabama to ensure that Malone and Hood gained entry and enrolled at the University.
Wallace was confronted by troopers from his own state and eventually stepped aside and allowed Malone and Hood to enrol. Malone graduated from Alabama two years later, the first black student to do so.
Wallace, incidentally went on to serve for three terms as Governor and attempted four times to have himself nominated for the Presidency. He was shot in an assassination attempt while addressing a rally and survived the shooting but suffered from partial paralysis as a bullet lodged in his spine. In the late Seventies he became a born again Christian and renounced racism, asking for forgiveness for his former views and segregationist campaigns.
Wallace’s determined racism was capable of being reversed by a change of faith or by a religious conversion or revelation. The anti-racist movement threw up the idea that there were forms of “institutional racism” which could not be transformed by such a change of heart. This form of racism was embedded in the structure of the institution and in order to get rid of it the institution had to be demolished. The formula was applied to everything from the Presidency to the structure of the forces of the state to universities, businesses and to even to the non-institutional abstraction of “history”. As it was written, it was “white man’s history” and “institutionally racist”.
The formula of institutional bias against black people which merged in different levels of education, different treatment by sentencing courts, differentiated employment prospects, separate and distinctly lower rates of pay which could undoubtedly proved by statistics or by simple observation, began to be altered.
Nobody would argue that the election of Obama has miraculously rid the United States of all traces of differential treatment of Afro-Americans, but it is certainly the great symbolic step forward.
And so it would have been for the other war of the late twentieth century, the declared war on “sexism”, if Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination and thence the Presidential election.
The fact that Obama, a black man, won the nomination has precluded the argument that Hillary lost because she was a woman. If she had been up against a middle-aged white male such as her husband Bill or indeed up against George Bush the odds are that losing to him would have precipitated an avalanche of accusations of “sexism”. Now even the most strident campaigners in the war against sexism will hesitate before attributing Hillary’s defeat to her “gender”.
“Anti-Sexism” as a political movement in the United States may not have been directly inspired by the black Civil Rights Movement but its vociferous following was born after the negroes of America had asserted their determination to attain equality. Through the centuries, as the anti-sexist movement has been pointing out through its academic research, the subservience of the female gender has been challenged explicitly and implicitly by women. The struggle for equality, it has been said, is an escape from the confines of gender roles. The movement of materialist or Marxist feminists concentrated not on perceptions of women and gender but on issues such as equal pay, opportunities for employment and the legal distinction between the rights of women and men. If all men and women are born equal, American social and political practice should follow the American constitution in providing such equality. Women and feminists had a strong case for fighting institutional sexism, which was manifest in the classification of jobs as gender-exclusive.
The movement took on wider targets — targets of the imagination — which the materialist feminists were sceptical of tackling. Should the feminist movement embrace the career woman and strive to negate the idea of women as child-bearers, home-makers and carers while men were and are seen as hunters, gatherers, bread-winners and the natural custodians of political and economic management and processes.
Both anti-racism and anti-sexism as movements can be materially traced to factors beyond a moral awakening. The invention and manufacture of artificial fabric, the invention of machinery which replaced “cotton-picking” labour on the vast farms of the south created massive unemployment among the black populations of the Southern states. It created the migration of blacks to the manufacturing centres of the north and gave rise to a restlessness in which the demands for material equality and advancement took root.
The demand for a larger labour force, evident since the industrial revolution of the late Nineteenth century and the assembly line manufacture of the early Twentieth century gave rise to women coming out of the home to work. Inequalities and injustice were born of the differential of experience between the child-bearing worker and the male. The contours of the labour market were strong determinants of attitudes both among the blacks and among women.
An X-ray view of the US elections of 2008 will demonstrate that not two but three political divides were being confronted by the voters. In the person of McCain, who would be 73 when he assumed the Presidency, the question of age became part of the electoral equation. Was he too old? Is there such thing as being too old to hold a position? It is obvious that the colour of skin or one’s genetic origins don’t determine ability to do any job — you can even be a black Santa Claus. Women can, now that physical strength is no longer a determinant of the ability to undertake most tasks, do any job.
Age may in some instances restrict one’s abilities to perform certain physical tasks but, barring the fall into memory loss that goes with ageing, most work which entails the average physical endeavour and mental faculty can be undertaken at any age after maturity. One wouldn’t want a twelve-year-old as president of the United States, but there is no prima facie reason to prefer a 46-year-old to a 72-year-old. Except “ageism”.
It may very well be that the young voted in greater numbers for Obama because he was younger. It is possible that some voters considered McCain who would be 76-77 at the end of his first term to be too old to represent the dynamism of their country. Such ageism, the preference for the younger man in a vote is not actionable. That’s what voting is about.
The fight against “ageism” is only just beginning. There is now legislation in place in Europe to prevent the barring of people from employment on grounds of their age just as there is on grounds of colour or gender. A preference for the younger candidate on the grounds of youth may not be that difficult to prove. A comparison of CVs will yield the contrast between the experience and consequent ability of a candidate. No criteria are foolproof. An employing agency or person may easily plead that the older more qualified candidate was less qualified because “experience” may have fossilised his or her way of doing things in a situation which required a completely fresh, even naïve approach.
The irony is that as the anti-ageist movement gets going, the labour market is shrinking and that will give the movement, if there is one, its most severe set-back.
Obama has given Hillary the job of Secretary of State. McCain will have to content himself with playing with the grandchildren.