From T-shirts to bake sales, MRG’s Intern Marissa Burik on the importance of this election to US’s African American community.
The polls may be clear, but so are the nerves. Even in a London flat filled with 11 American students (mostly of the Democratic persuasion) the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife. We come from diverse backgrounds and an eclectic mix of geographies. The New Yorkers amongst us are incredibly sure of an Obama victory, while the lone Southern Republican is holding out hope for a McCain victory.
As for me….as a pessimist, I refuse to make predictions…but the election of Obama would be very important for the US’s minorities; he would not just be the first African American president but the first US president from any ethnic minority.
Of course, an Obama victory would mark a significant shift in how the US engages with the world. And that does not just include how Obama looks. The policy differences and approaches run deep. As American journalist Nicholas Kristof put it last week, Obama could represent a “rebranding” of the US throughout the world. Or to put it differently, we would switch from having a ‘shoot first, questions later’ mentality to ‘talk first, shoot later’. But looks also matter. If Obama is elected, it will show the progressive nature of US politics. ‘Old’ Europe might like to write the US off as a nation of hillbillies, but when will there be a black presidential candidate in Germany, France or even at the top leadership of my current country of residence, Britain?
But turning back to the home front, not since Martin Luther King Jr. has a single African-American individual had such a broad impact on the entire American populace. Martin Luther King Jr. was able to make us think beyond black and white, and focus on the basic humanity that each and every person deserves. This message had the effect of energizing an otherwise marginalized community, and starting the civil rights movement in 1960s America.
If elected president, Barack Obama could have a similar effect on the African American community. Minority voters (along with the youth) are usually considered by political anoraks to be unreliable. But they have already been turning out in record numbers – at primaries, at rallies, and, yes, queuing to vote early. Whatever the outcome on November 4th, Obama has rewritten the election rule book and one lesson is this: US elections are no longer about old, white middle class people.
I know that in a pre-dominantly African American church in Chicago attended by a co-worker of mine, every Sunday, there is bake sale, selling cookies and home-made treats as well as awesome T-shirts with pictures of Barak Obama, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, alongside the ‘change’ message. Proceeds go to the campaign. It’s just one example of the African American grassroots effort across the US. Although the Obama campaign has been good at pulling in the big donors, they have also capitalised on a new market, of individual donors putting in small sums of money to support the candidate. And unlike the McCain campaign, Obama hasn’t had to hire people to go out and campaign for him….
Yet Obama’s engagement with his own community has been interesting. He’s been unafraid to deliver the messages that people need to hear, as well as the ones that people want to hear. For example, on Father’s Day, he delivered a speech in a predominantly African American Chicago church – his message was that all fathers – and African-American ones in particular – had a responsibility to be there for their children. He was blunt about it. If he gets elected, we should be seeing this as a moment to re-launch the civil rights movement. This one would not necessarily be race based. Instead, it would see many different people working towards equal opportunity. Obama is a perfect example of an individual who has benefited from the public system, and then made himself a success. He is the right person and this is the right time.
And then there is our second alternative, a McCain victory. I have less to say to say about this. The potential triumph of a septuagenarian with a 26 year history of working in the Washington establishment won’t change much in the perception of those who view the US from abroad. Electing John McCain would reinforce stereotypes of Americans as distrustful of change and yes, a little bit racist.
For the African American community, a McCain win would undoubtedly be seen as a setback. The status quo would prevail. The message would be that you can work very hard and get very close and still go home disappointed. That’s been the experience of many African-Americans, as well as other minorities and women. It’s not a positive message to send to any person regardless of their race, gender or creed.
So no predictions…just hope.