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Obama and the End of White Elite Politics

The election of Barack Obama has been heralded as proof that the United States has finally broken through the racial barrier.

The election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president has been heralded as proof that the United States has finally broken through the racial barrier. The image springs to mind of recalcitrant whites at last convinced to see beyond skin color, voting for a black man.

This did happen -- even in some pretty unexpected places and demographics. But the real key to Obama's victory is that the white elite no longer have a stranglehold on U.S. politics. The composition of the nation has changed so that the older white man can no longer be considered the image of the universal citizen.

Census data had been pointing to this change in composition for a decade or more, leading the right to issue dire warnings to defend "real Americans" and their values. But the so-called "minorities" were either excluded (through imprisonment, voter suppression, denial of citizenship, and other mechanisms) or alienated from effective political participation. Obama managed to unleash and unite the strength of this new diversity. This has profound implications for U.S. domestic and foreign policy, but especially for the way we conceive of our political system.

Triumph over Exclusion

The Democratic convention provided the first sign that the party might not be seeing red and blue states but rather colors -- and differences -- within its constituency. For the first time in history, minorities made up the majority of democratic delegates. Of the delegates, 24.5 percent were African-American, 11.8 percent Latino, 4.6 percent Asian-Pacific-American, 2.5 percent Native American, 5.8 percent GLBT and 3.7 percent with disabilities.

Step two was to increase registered voters among groups that were previously excluded and had excluded themselves from the political process. The voter registration and "get out the vote" efforts of the Obama campaign and its allies increased voter turnout among these groups. Some of those efforts preceded the elections. For example, since the 2006 immigrant demonstrations, the We Are America Alliance registered nearly 500,000 immigrant and immigrant family voters.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos comprise the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country: 46 million people, or 15 percent of the population, On Nov. 4, the Latino vote increased 32 percent to around 9 percent of the total, and 67 percent voted for Obama. In four battleground states that went to Bush in 2004 -- Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Virginia -- the Latino vote for Obama was over 70 percent, according to statistics by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, based on results and exit polls.

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, of the National Council of La Raza, told La Opinion, "We can't say that the Latino vote decided the victory, but if it's added to the African-American vote they determined the destiny of the country. This support represents a commitment by Obama to Hispanic voters to address the issues that are important to this community: First, the economy and second, immigration reform."

The political weight of " New Americans" -- naturalized citizens and their children born after 1965, has been growing steadily. They made up a full 24.4 percent of registered voters in California this year.

However, in looking at the new political landscape in the United States, a case can be made for calling all youth "New Americans." Like the other groups, they are far from monolithic in their political orientation and they share the experience of being previously marginalized from the political process, by both their own low levels of participation and a lack of candidates' attention. This year, young people, inspired and mobilized by the Obama campaign, participated in the political process in many cases for the first time. They bring with them experiences quite different from the mid-1960s' Baby Boomers or the "Me Generation" of the 1980s. Preliminary reports indicate that youth did not significantly increase turnout, but they voted 2-to-1 for Obama.

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