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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

What A Vote for Change Represents.

My wife suggested that I read Frank Rich's New York Times column today before I write my blog. Now, my wife knows how hard I try to not let others influence my opinions--almost impossible, I know, but I try to hold a certain integrity of thought. But, in the spirit of coming together that is seizing much of the world, I read the article after I has started to shape my own thoughts (see NYT article) and I will borrow from his piece as a preface to my own thoughts:

"For eight years, we’ve been told by those in power that we are small, bigoted and stupid — easily divided and easily frightened. This was the toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics. It was the soiled banner picked up by the sad McCain campaign, and it was often abetted by an amen corner in the dominant news media."

America has voted for many things with the election of Barack Obama to be its 44th president.

It HAS voted for a black person to lead the country: undoubtedly a redefining moment for a country that has been built on much bitter racial division between blacks and whites, and which less than 50 years ago had laws that denied black people so many basic rights. Is racism dead? No. It is deeply ingrained in American society and its institutional base cannot be unravelled easily. But, race may now take on a much different relevance. Already there are stories such as "The Great Republican Hope", about Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal--37 years old; US-born of Punjabi Indian parents; Brown University [biology and public policy]; then option of Harvard Medical School pr Yale Law School, but went as Rhodes Scholar in political science at Oxford (see Yahoo report). Colour is in.

I think that America voted for a real image of itself in the sense that modern America is not a WASP-ish country, i.e., White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants do not rule the roost. The USA is a diverse country, racially and ethnically, and for the first time at the national level, this has become apparent. It has been evident at local and regional legislative levels for some time.

In doing so, Americans also voted for an intact, black middle class family. This is not a first. But in the same way that much of America got to know the "successful, black middle class" through the "The Cosby Show", they will now see it on national TV in real terms at the head of its nation. Senator Obama joked during the campaign about being accused of being married to the mother of his children, and of not being a drug addict, etc., knowing that for many Americans the stereotype of blacks is more the dysfunctional family than the stable, loving, caring, achieving family.

Barack Obama's principal advisor, with whom he consults on all major decisions is Valerie Jarrett. Ms. Jarrett was born to an African-American family in Shiraz, Iran (must be another Muslim extremist, eh?), where her father, Dr. James Bowman (pathologist and geneticist), ran a hospital for poor children as part of a program that sent American doctors and agricultural experts to developing countries to help invigorate health and farming efforts. The family moved to London for one year, then returned to Chicago in 1963. Dr. Bowman is currently Professor Emeritus in Pathology and Medicine, University of Chicago. Ms. Jarrett's great-grandfather was the first African-American to graduate from M.I.T., her grandfather, Robert Taylor, was the first black man to head the Chicago Housing Authority, and her father was the first black resident at St. Luke’s Hospital. Though Ms. Jarrett has never worked in Washington, her great-uncle is Democratic power broker, Vernon Jordan, a close adviser to President, Bill Clinton. Her mother, Barbara Bowman, is an African-American early childhood education expert and co-founder of the Erikson Institution for child development. Get the picture?

These are not dragged up from the gutter black people. These are not black people who are free-riders and drug dealers, and criminals, and other negative stereotypes; or blacks who had no education and needed to fight against "the system". They worked with and rose through the system. That might have been why those who were from the era of black civil rights struggles were not comfortable. No disrespect to Jesse Jackson, but his rise from adversity was his pillar for moving ahead: racial discrimination was in his veins, even when a star high school and college athlete, which some argue is why he transferred from the integrated University of Illinois to the black college North Carolina A&T.

We, in the Caribbean, have lived with black leaders who have been from educationally solid backgrounds, from families that had stature, and were able to be seen as "fit" for high political office through their intellect or professional achievements. But, for America, this will be a major page being turned. The black middle class has been less visible than it should be and black leaders in business and politics have been less visible than they should have been.

America did not NOT vote for a woman to be president. The women candidates (either Senator Clinton or Governor Palin) were not the best choices. I am sure that Oprah would have been a popular candidate, and there are other women who would not have been lightning rods for opposition. But, I will no doubt hear that women are still looking through glass ceilings. It's not true in politics in the US.

America's white majority (a description not an accusation) determined the result not in their racial favour. It's true that the majority of the 300 million people currently living in the United States consists of "White Americans", and they are the majority in 48 of the 50 states. The dominant racial ancestry of Americans is white European (according to the 2000 Census, Germans (15%), Irish (11%), English (9%), Americans (7%), Italians (6%), etc.). This may reflect a realisation that race did not matter this time. Iowa spurred the Obama campaign from the start. The fact that the vote for Obama was over 55% in states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Washington is not a trivial matter (see Electoral-vote). The fact that the "rust belt" states like Ohio went to Obama and that states like Virginia and Florida went to the Democrats for the first time in decades in not a trivial matter.

America's non-white minorities tended to vote together. Again, according to the 2000 Census, America is made up of a lot of Hispanics (15%), Blacks (12%), and Asians (4%). Black candidates tended to not get the support of the other major minorities.

America voted for a thinking, intelligent person to lead the country, a man whose educational pedigree represents something near the pinnacle in the USA: Ivy League colleges (Columbia University--and one of my children went there too--and Harvard Law School); intellectual recognition (president of the Harvard Law Review (HLR), whose list of alumni reads like a "who's who" of US politics and law). Note that HLR has had its defining moments too in the past 30 years: its first woman president (Democratic political operative, Susan Estrich (1978); its first black president, Barack Obama (1991); and recently elected Andrew Crespo (2008) was the first Hispanic president. Is anti-intellectualism dead? No. But it is not atop the pedestal.

America also gave a vote this time against negativism, and the politics of division and hate. A resounding fall in support for the Republican campaign came soon after the addition of Governor Palin, and it fell further as the negative politics of "guilt by association" was allowed to show its ugly face. I personally believe that John McCain could hear echoes of his name ("McCainism") being used like that of Joe McCarthy with witch hunts of communists ("McCarthyism"). I am totally in accord with Frank Rich about the "toxic catechism of Bush-Rove politics".

American votes were enthused. Recent polls show that about two-thirds of Americans have expectations of their president-elect that are headed by positive terms like "optimism", and show that only about one-quarter or one-third hold negative notions like "fear".

President-elect Obama said in a CBS interview on October 30 that he "does not tolerate drama" or "people pushing others down to get themselves up". That is a message of civility, but during the presidential debates, for example, Senator Obama's tendency to agree with his opponent was seen as "weakness". I never took that view. I believe that he is a bridge builder and in that sense, one has to show "a willingness to go across". Many politicians are not capable of thinking this way and working this way. With the new president, I have to hope that "change goin' come" in this regard.

The candidate whose mantra was "change" is not a revolutionary. He was accused of "palling around with terrorists" (Oh that pathetic charge!). But he was not accused of "palling around with pillars of America's society"). President-elect Obama's campaign was been stiffened by many older and wiser heads: Paul Volcker stood head and shoulders above many, literally and figuratively. He has indicated that he likes continuity if it means following a better line. he has indicated that there must be cross over, such as bipartisanship. He extended the hand for collective solutions to his defeated presidential opponent. There is much talk already of keeping on certain key officials from the current administration. That may not be popular with partisans. As someone who lived through several wasted decades of British politics of "stop-go" where Labour or Conservatives wanted to make their mark by breaking down all that their predecessors had built. I know what I think makes sense.

The president-elect is a realist. He has already indicated that the change wont be in one year or even one term. I do not think that he is a "nice guy". His political rise from Chicago shows that he has elbows, which he uses with vigour. But, it also shows that he knows how to get people on his side.

This is but the start of an amazing journey.

1 comment:

ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID said...

Good piece Dennis!!