The State of Black Women in Politics Under the First Black President
History was made in November 2008. Record breaking numbers of voters
lined up to vote the first African-American President into office, with
Barack Obama handily beating Arizona Republican Senator John McCain,
winning 52% of the electoral vote, a clear mandate for change.
African-Americans made up 13% of the electorate, a two percent increase
from the 2006 elections,
and approximately 95% of black voters cast
their ballots in favor of Obama.
Within that 13%, black women had
the highest voter turnout rate among all racial, gender, and ethnic
As the election results were posted, the media and the
President-elect himself made grand proclamations about the significance
of the election, as well as what it portended for the country's future.
New York Times writer Adam Nagourney described voters' election
of Obama as "sweeping away the last racial barrier in American
politics," continuing with a quote from Obama's victory speech in Grant
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America
is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream
of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of
our democracy, tonight is your answer.... It's been a long time coming, but
tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this
defining moment, change has come to America.
It would be nice to think that Obama's election was the positive end
note to over four hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and
institutionalized racism—that the promise stated by our founders, "All
men are created equal," has finally been realized. And there is a
certain quintessence that now a black family lives in the White House, a
national monument primarily constructed with the use of slave labor.
For a nation weary of its own racist history, the Obama administration
is a historic marker that many, especially those on the Right, can point
to and say, "See, it's over." In fact, many political commentators have
gone so far as to say that America has entered a "post-racial" phase
with President Obama, its first "post-racial" President.
Black women may beg to differ. And on closer examination,
particularly with regards to the status of Black women in the political
sphere, the past two years have been a dismal replay of the mistakes
made by the much lauded Clinton (the "first black president")
administration. That's not to dismiss the many accomplishments of
President Obama. We have the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in
history, the successful passage of a health care reform bill, and the
military withdrawal from Iraq, all significant achievements.
Nevertheless, President Obama and his administration continue to shy
away from conversations about race, and seem almost alienated from, or
ignorant of, the rich history of Civil Rights activism in general, and
of Black women's organizing in particular.
While the Obama presidency began positively, with several positions
within the administration offered to Black women during the initial wave
of change, since then there have been two incidents comparable to Bill
Clinton's betrayals of Lani Guinier and Dr. Joycelyn Elders. President
Obama failed to stand up for Press Secretary Desiree Rogers; then, he
left Shirley Sherrod (formerly of the USDA) to fend for herself in a
crucial and very public incident in which his support could have changed
the unfortunate course of events. And remarkably, given the opportunity
to appoint two Supreme Court Justices, not a single qualified Black
woman moved from the nominee list to face-to-face interviews with the
President in the nomination and review processes.
And this speaks to why this president has been a source of
disappointment for black women. Yes, there are numerous
African-American women in his administration, but few of them have been
assigned to positions that have true power. And for those chosen few,
the new President seems unwilling to defend them, even in the face of
misconstrued or erroneous reports. It appears that the price of having
the first African-American President is that he cannot, or will not,
address issues of race beyond the vaguest allusions that construe
slavery as just another immigrant story, in effect dismissing the
context of his singular achievement, which was accomplished only through
decades of political struggle by African-American men and women and
organized anti-racist activism. Tellingly, even Civil Rights leader
Jesse Jackson noted then-candidate Obama's alienation from
African-Americans, criticizing Obama in 2007 for not bringing more
attention to the Jena 6 incident in Louisiana, and again stating in 2008
that Obama seemed to be "talking down to black people."
So it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that change has
come to America in a meaningful way, especially for black women.
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