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I was intrigued by the reprint of a 2001 survey of the American public appearing in USA Today on January 19, the day before Barack Obama’s inauguration, which asked the question, “When do you think the US will have its first black President?” Keep in mind that this question was asked in 2001. Here’s the answer:
• 43%: within 25 years
• 36%: within 10 years
The remaining 21% were split into small percentages showing “never,” “no opinion“and “after or within 100 years.”
Why, I wondered, did nearly half the population say “within 25 years” and why only slightly more than a third say “within 10 years”? What were the conditions in 2001 that would make people feel that the election of a black President was possibly six elections off? Here are my speculations on the entire matter as well as why one-third of the population turned out to be right.
The first reason is lack of a viable black candidate. While there have been many proven black leaders in positions of national responsibility who became a recognized force in public life — Ralph Bunche, Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey and, of course, Martin Luther King — only a handful ( including Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun) have run for the presidency. None was considered a mainstream candidate.
More recently, Colin Powell — who served, during his illustrious career as U.S. Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Army Forces Command and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Gulf War … and who led us to victory countering Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait during the administration of Bush 41— might well have been the most universally respected and credible potential Presidential candidate in recent memory, but he declined to run. Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State during the administration of Bush 43, was never a candidate. At the time of the USA Today survey, therefore, there was no one on the horizon to make a black President seem imminent or even something that could happen in the foreseeable future.
Secondly, among the 43% or 36% who might have been far-thinking, they possibly realized that the minority population of the U.S. was projected to pass the white population
in 2042, making the minority a majority, thereby increasing the likelihood that, by then, we would indeed elect a black President.
Thirdly, we were lacking role models. While to some extent Hollywood movies (such as “Deep Impact”)and television shows (like “24”) have cast blacks in political leadership roles and even the presidency, the idea still seemed like a novelty … far-fetched.
Fourth, most black political leaders who had declared for the presidency were positioned as representing the black community and dedicated to improving the lot of that community, rather than all of us. Two come to mind: Chicago’s Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, from New York. It would have been challenging for them to change their positioning, as their careers were built on that premise; their identities as advocates for African-Americans were already firmly established.
Fifth, in 2001, following 9-11, as a nation focused on security, and in the throes of the dot com recession, the ascendancy of a black President was just not on the public’s mind. Impressive black talent was emerging in business and state leadership, but the numbers were not significant enough for even those paying attention to make bold predictions.
Obviously the 36% who predicted the event would happen within 10 years were either clairvoyant, lucky or saw something that others did not. For example, the aforementioned rise of blacks in state and business leadership positions, the changing attitudes gradually wrought by the Civil Rights Act and the integration and social acceptance of blacks among those on university campuses (e.g., by the dawn of the new millennium, most fraternities and sororities had eliminated the color and religion bar).
Whatever the reasons people made those projections in 2001, I know I am not alone in contending that Barack Obama’s success transcended color. Nevertheless, the very fact that his election happened is still a critical positive change in American attitudes and the way in which our legal system can effect that change.
Obama, the man, caught the drift of what the public needed to hear, and he delivered. From the very start of his campaign, Obama has refused to allow himself to be positioned as a “race” candidate. Unlike his predecessors (e.g., Jackson, Sharpton, et al), he spoke unifying themes: change when the public felt change was needed, bringing people together following a period of divisiveness, inclusiveness when we needed the power of many to get things done, and a vision of hope when the public pulse required optimism and reconciliation.
What came across was a man who could lead with compassion and get things done, not a black man inevitably linked by his color to the many challenges the black community has faced for years, although he embraced those as well.
The situation recalls the statement made by the famous black actor, Sidney Poitier, in the 1960’s movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Poitier plays the role of a brilliant doctor who has held world-class health leadership positions. He’s about to marry an upper class white woman. Poitier, facing the rejection of his father who feels his son should stay within his station, says, “Dad, the difference between you and me is that you see yourself as a colored man, and I see myself as a man.”
We have come a long way since the ‘60s. But this indeed describes Barack Obama and the image he projects. Many social forces enabled us to become color blind. His self-image can only positively affect the black community and how it sees itself, in the future. This perception and the resulting self-confidence of that community can only expand the talent available to make this country greater.
According to the Washington Post
, in 2000, President Clinton's former chief adviser on race, Christopher Edley, Jr., was asked to speculate about the prospects of a black president by 2020. "I'm pessimistic about that," said Edley. "I think we will see a woman or Latino before we see an African American."
Nearly one-third of the population in that 2001 survey was able to more accurately predict the future than Edley, now dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at U.C. Berkeley. They were visionary enough to imagine our first black president. I’m proud they were able to do so.
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