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  Afro Obama

Political Transition and Constructive Symbolism: The Barack Obama Era and the Future of Black Politics
By Jacob E. Butler, Ph.D.

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The recent election and inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States has generated much discussion about the state of matters pertaining to race and politics in this society. Much of this conversation has centered on the immediate as well as long-term effects of the incoming Obama era as they relate to political affairs within the African American community.

From one vantage point, some observers see Barack Obama's election as a transformative event with the potential to profoundly alter the direction of socio-economic and political activity in this country. As an African American who attained the presidency through cultivating a substantial cross-racial appeal (although a majority of whites did not vote for him), many proponents of the transformationist view consider Obama's victory as evidence that race is losing its place as the defining feature of American life.

For example, an August 6, 2008 New York Times Magazine feature entitled "Is Obama the End of Black Politics"" outlines the prospect of a "post racial" society where expressions of political behavior among African Americans will gradually diffuse throughout the larger political mainstream as was the past experience of various white ethnic groups. In this scenario, "Black Politics" as defined by a broad group consensus in terms of outlook, policy preferences and distinct patterns of collective behavior with respect to political matters, is destined for extinction.

Conversely, there are skeptics who interpret the inauguration of the nation's first Black president as a significant, although largely symbolic event. Adherents to this view contend that while perhaps providing an immediate boost to the collective psyche, "Obama Mania" obscures the persistence of discrimination and conditions of socio-economic disadvantage faced by African Americans as a group.

The more cynical of these observers have even characterized Barack Obama's election as a form of "window dressing" intended to blunt momentum toward genuine change by putting a Black face on the socio-economic and political status quo. Therefore, despite Barack Obama's presence in the White House, such critics assert the continuing need for a traditional Black politics focused on group solidarity, challenging existing institutional arrangements as well as pursuit of a public policy agenda centered on social and economic justice for African Americans.

Between the aforementioned perspectives, I argue that there is a middle posture of measured optimism wherein the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency might be considered as highlighting a period of political transition in this society with the potential to have constructive as well as symbolic effects for African Americans. To start, having the first non-white person to serve as titular head of the United States government in its nearly 222 years as a constitutional republic has measurably affected the general political atmosphere, at least for the moment.

For example, a CNN poll conducted within days of the inauguration indicated that 68% of respondents were either thrilled or happy with the election of Barack Obama, and nearly the same number saw it as an opportunity for the country to come together. Also, for the first time in its 45-year history, a post-election Rasmussen poll revealed that the percentage of African Americans who viewed the United States as still being an unfair and discriminatory society fell from a substantial majority (64%) to less than half (46%).

Whether this increased optimism simply reflects short-term euphoria associated with an unprecedented historical moment or an opening for sustainable change in the social climate such that the aspirations of African Americans become less threatening to the larger society, only time will tell. However, it nevertheless provides a potential energy source which Black politics could harness in the current moment and direct toward useful ends.

Next, a Black presidency intensifies pressure on African Americans to reassess the reasons for their continued state of collective disadvantage in this society. As segments of this community achieve greater levels of success in various spheres despite America's racial history while others do not (including attaining major political offices), then factors besides systemic racial discrimination alone become relevant considerations in this regard.

While the notion that Barack Obama's election diminishes race to a superfluous role in American life is incredulous, given the ongoing socio-economic disparities African Americans continue to face as a group, current circumstances do require recalibrating aspects of the racial paradigm that has represented the underpinning of Black politics from its inception to date. A greater sense of urgency, both in intellectual as well as popular discourse, pursuant to redefining the foundations of shared identity and group solidarity today within an increasingly fragmented African American community is essential to the continued relevance of Black politics. Such an undertaking is all the more necessary in a society that is becoming more racially and socio-economically diverse.

Aside from creating more favorable atmospherics and helping stimulate efforts toward greater clarity of purpose, the Obama era heralds a period of transition as we consider operational matters pertaining to Black politics as well. In the first place, Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Duval Patrick, et. al. are representative of a new wave of elected officials that is vying for its place within the African American political leadership collective at all levels of society. Having come of age in the post-legal segregation era, many of them bring perspectives that move beyond traditional civil rights issues and appeal to constituencies beyond the African American community.

A significant number of these newly emerging personalities also come from arenas outside of electoral politics, such as community organizers (as Obama was at one time), actors in the non-profit sector and entrepreneurs. If Black politics effectively assimilates this emerging leadership cohort, it can achieve greater currency through expanding its range of concerns and forging meaningful coalitions with other interests to make progress in areas where their priorities coincide.

Finally, the Obama era also represents a transitory challenge for Black politics by introducing the need for more sophisticated use of technology in carrying out the basic operational tasks of organizing, resource development and outreach. As noted by the Chicago Tribune, the prodigious use of the Internet in the 2008 presidential election campaign enabled Barack Obama to raise a record $ 770 million, establish a volunteer base of an estimated two million people, and compile a list of some ten million e-mail addresses to facilitate unfiltered communication with supporters. Black political organizations and leaders must better replicate this technological savvy in order to acquire the material and human resources necessary to effectively engage citizens and institutions as they pursue initiatives deemed to be beneficial to the African American community.

In conclusion, as the popular outpourings of emotion and the world-wide attention associated with this occasion demonstrate, the symbolic meaning of Barack Obama becoming the first African American to serve as this country's head of state cannot be denied. However, to the extent that it also has the possibility of helping accelerate movement toward a contemporary Black politics that is re-energized, refocused and placed on a more effective operational footing, the Obama era represents a form of constructive symbolism that can potentially serve African Americans in good stead for years to come.

Dr. Butler is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Division of Social Sciences at Morris College in Sumter, SC. He can be contacted at

© Feb 2009 By Afromerica || [TOP]


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