Obama's historic victory: people want change!


The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the day after the historic November 4 presidential election provided this image: a full page color photo of Barack Obama with the quote, "Change has come to America".

In his victory speech to 250,000 supporters in Chicago, Obama repeated his campaign theme: "Yes we can."

At newsstands from Harlem, New York, to the southside of Chicago, to Oakland, California, African Americans flocked to buy papers to commemorate the unprecedented election of a non-white president.

It's hard to describe the feelings of excitement for African Americans watching the returns. There were cries when a state went "blue" (for Obama).

And at 8pm California time, when the word came that Barack Hussein Obama was president-elect, tears ran down the faces of large numbers of African Americans — especially those who marched against segregation and for civil rights.

Pride. Disbelief. The future is here.

But it wasn't only Blacks who cheered. Asians, Latinos and large numbers of whites across the US understood the significance.

There were long lines outside polls. There were older African Americans who had never voted before. Why vote before, they said, when the powers that be didn't do anything for Black people?

The turnout of the Black community was unprecedented — over 95%. Many brought their children to the polling place. It reminded me of South Africa after the end of apartheid.

One letter to the New York Times said what many felt: "That day has dawned, the day dreamed of by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when a man is judged by the content of his character rather than by the color of his skin."

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It was 40 years ago that King, the great civil rights leader, was assassinated in Memphis. He had said someday a Black man could be president of the country. No one of that generation believed it would happen in their lifetime.

Obama, born of a Kenyan father and a white mother, did what no one could expect or believe.

Many young white people voted against the racism of the past.

The pride and belief that anything is possible was self evident. The large crowds across the country, especially in Black communities, were amazing. In Chicago, some 250,000 citizens of all races rallied for Obama's victory speech.

It was a mosaic of the US population. It stood in sharp contract to the nearly all-white crowds at the events of Republican candidate John McCain and his running mate Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

The Republican's last minute attempt to play the race card, the red-baiting card and terrorist card failed.

Why Obama won

The key issues were the economy and the collapse of the international free market. Obama's early opposition to the Iraq war was also a factor.

Eight years of failed Republican economic and foreign policy led to a "throw the bums out" outpouring.

Yet it still wasn't clear if the US people in its majority would vote for a Black as president. There was still a lot of anxiety and fear of dirty tricks until the end.

Obama received nearly 100% of the Black vote, a large majority of Latino and women voters, and a majority of Jewish voters.

Obama won a landslide under the electoral college system, securing 52% of the popular vote — the first time Democratic Party candidate secured more than 50% the vote in 32 years.

He won a majority of states, including "red" states won by the discredited President George Bush in 2004.

There was no significant third party support either as people saw their vote as making history. (The most successful was independent anti-corporate candidate Ralph Nader, who won 1%, or 658,618 votes with 97% of the vote counted.)

The fact that a descendant of victims of colonialism and slavery could be elected president in a situation where there are no significant social or political upsurges pressing the ruling class reflects how the world has changed.

By 2050, whites will be a minority of the US population.

In 1776, the founding fathers didn't see such a future. Blacks were denied citizenship and featured in the constitution as the legitimate property of slaveholders.

It took a civil war in the 1860s to end slavery. It took another 100 years to legally end segregation and gain the voting rights that have placed Obama in the White House.

In 1961, Obama's white mother and African father would have been arrested for marrying in the state of Virginia (once home of the slaveholders' Confederacy) because of racist laws.

Race and class

The significance of the change is not that the US is now "post racial", as some liberals and conservatives may argue. No, racism still exists.

But the fact that the race issue became secondary and Obama won reveals that the younger generation born after the 1960s sees race more as an issue of diversity than division.

It certainly doesn't mean "democratic capitalism" is ending racism. It reflects that the rise of the Black middle class that Obama represents has become more integrated into the ruling political and economic power structures. The ruling class has learned how to adapt.

On the other hand, the vast majority of working poor are still minorities — and they still suffer inferior education, jobs and opportunities.

Obama will also head a government carrying out two wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and threatens Iran and other nations. He is a strong supporter of the apartheid state of Israel that terrorises the Palestinian people.

An Obama presidency will not change the fundamentals of US foreign and domestic policy. Tactics may change, but not objectives.

While an Obama presidency is accompanied by large amounts of hope from ordinary people — victims of corporate tyranny — he will represent the same corporate interests as all previous presidents.

The explosion of joy that accompanied his victory was not related to what Obama will do or what policies he will defend. For African Americans, it was due to the hope that from now what you can achieve will no longer be related to skin colour.

The result shows that even with institutional discrimination, which remains strong, changes have occurred that many thought impossible under capitalism.

What next?

On the fundamental issues of policy, don't expect significant changes. In fact, Obama has pledged a more aggressive military policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan — a disaster for these peoples as well a policy that will send more body bags back to the US.

With Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, Obama should be able to pass many of his campaign promises. He will likely open more collaborative relations with Europe, Asia and the United Nations.

He will likely launch a public works program aimed at creating employment and implement a new economic stimulus package. With the financial crisis deepening and prospects for a world recession expanding, he may push through some tax relief for the "middle class", although he's already warned his most loyal supporters to lower their expectations.
Nonetheless, most African Americans will give Obama a long honeymoon. The joy of average African Americans to have someone who looks like them in the White House can't be overstated.

The hope is genuine.

One Black solider stationed in Afghanistan the day after the vote put it best by paraphrasing the words of the US "declaration of independence", which states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

He said, "I now believe that".

That's why November 4, 2008, will be celebrated no matter what follows in the days, months and years ahead.

[Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current living in South San Francisco.]