It was no more than two years ago that Barack Obama—then a senatorial candidate for the state of Illinois and now the only African-American currently serving in the Senate— delivered a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. His speech struck such a resounding chord with a class of African-Americans that a couple of years later, a record number of African-American candidates are vying for upper-tier political offices.
From gubernatorial candidates Deval L. Patrick ’78 in the state of Massachusetts, Lynn Swann of Pennsylvania, and Ken Blackwell of Ohio to senatorial candidates Michael Steele of Maryland and Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, more African-Americans than ever have stepped up to bat in what can be considered the major league of our nation’s political arena. Obama is not the only reason for these candidates; their political aspirations started long ago. But his spark made it an optimal time to intensify their greater political aspirations.
Obama’s visibility, however, has been viewed by some to have been unfairly attained. In an unforgiving editorial in The New York Sun, John McWhorter argues that the buzz surrounding Obama is less about his political acumen and charisma, but more about his being black. McWhorther opens the editorial with “imagine him white,” and proceeds to decry the dehumanization of Obama claiming that “he is being [touted] as presidential timber not despite his race, but because of it.” A refutation by Cass R. Sunstein ’75—a former colleague of Obama—in The New Republic’s Open University blog, extensively cites Obama’s credentials as a former University of Chicago Law School professor and a former president of the Harvard Law Review. He cites Obama’s personable character and sheer brilliance as the rallying causes behind McWhorter so-called “buzz.”
McWhorter thinks Obama was elected because of his race and that this is bad. Sunstein thinks Obama was not elected because of his race and that this is good. The latter seems a little naïve, while the former seems unnecessarily uncomfortable.
Let us start with a caveat. Obama is brilliant; there’s no doubt about that. But there’s also no doubt that Obama became such a prominent figure in politics because he was black. Being black for Obama was not sufficient to award him high praise, but it was necessary. The same sorts of questions could have been raised for other politicians. Sunstein writes, “Would George W. Bush be president if his last name were not Bush?” He reluctantly acknowledges necessary conditions for politicians’ success, but fails to concede the fact that Obama being black had something to do with his visibility. It did. And the result was nothing short of exciting. People were galvanized and it rallied a group of African-Americans to aspire to greater heights.
The success of Obama and the increase in the number of African-American candidates vying for upper-tier political offices will only provide a greater platform to address minority issues. This year marked a record year for African-Americans; maybe the next few years will mark a record year for another minority group. Whether or not these candidates reach home plate is inconsequential, but we should applaud their efforts to have come to the plate with issues, passions, and a drive ready to swing for the representation of the under-represented. And if being black, Hispanic, or Asian will help them get there and energize others of their background, then so be it.
Patrick Jean Baptiste ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Cabot House.
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