Obamania is sweeping the world. More than 200,000 people gathered to see Obama in Germany. Millions of people are donating money to the Obama campaign. And every day, people are forming workgroups and initiatives on myobama.com.
Senator Obama’s campaign has invigorated a new generation of young volunteers, and reinvigorated established voters who had lost faith in the election system.
Obama’s hold on the imagination of such a wide swath of Americans (and international observers) represents a deep shift in how this country perceives itself and what is needed for political change.
The prospect of an African-American president for the United States is nothing short of groundbreaking. The U.S. history of slavery and Jim Crow has, in fact, proved a systematic culture of keeping black folks from accessing political power.
The office of president is symbolic, nationally and internationally, as the seat of power for the developed world. If an African
American fills this seat, people fighting for racial justice and civil rights will seemingly have an ally in the most powerful political office in the country. It will signal an advance in the global fight against colonialism and racism.
With all the excitement we need to pause and ask ourselves, “what if Obama wins?”
Clearly, Barack Obama would not be the first African-American, or person of color, elected to political office. And when communities win a political seat, community interests aren’t always met.
This is usually for two reasons:
1) Deep pocketed lobbyists have considerable influence over elected officials. Their agendas often trump a community agenda for a politician’s attention.
2) Just because someone looks like you, does not mean they think like you. (Just look within your own family!) There is a spectrum of political opinions, from the conservative right to the progressive left. Our position in the spectrum depends on many factors including our upbringing, schooling, friends and family, as well as our own lived experiences.
And as much as these factors vary amongst people, so do they vary amongst the very people from our communities who run for office. It is important for us to recognize this, because otherwise we can allow community pride to silence community accountability.
Politicians take positions during their election campaigns and then loosen, or even overturn, their opinions once in office. For example, President Bush Sr. assured “no new taxes” in his 1988 presidential campaign, and Gov. Charlie Crist, during his gubernatorial campaign, promised he would not support offshore drilling for oil in Florida. They both changed their positions once elected.
Though a politician may take a position on an issue during election time, they will then shift away from that position if there is power and pressure forcing them to do so.
Community pressure and community accountability are vital to the political process and a healthy democracy. It is important for people who have an interest in achieving racial justice, to monitor both the Obama and McCain platforms. But that is not enough. It is critical to join and support community organizations that will hold the next president accountable to a vision of social justice.
Campaign promises never deliver what voters want. It is the pressure of mobilized movements that push presidents, mayors, city and county commissioners to make decisions that benefit the community’s interest. This is evident from the 60s movement to establish civil rights, to the National Rifle Association mobilizations to protect the right to bear arms.
Even President George W. Bush faces political pressure now from the very conservative organizations and evangelical churches that voted him into his second term of office.
Communities of color, people dedicated to progressive values of health care, a healthy economy, an end to the war, and civil and human rights should prepare for the same.
Individual citizens and community organizations should exercise their right to investigate candidates, investigate their platforms, and vote on Election Day. Additionally, we must keep the pressure on. We must remain educated and watchful and then apply pressure when needed. There is an opportunity for the promises of this historic election season to manifest as the historic changes for social justice and human rights that we so desperately need today.
It’s up to us, not just a presidential candidate, to make that history happen.
Sushma Sheth is the director of programs for the Miami Workers Center, an organization that develops strategies with grassroots organizations in an effort to end poverty.