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The American people can now rejoice in one of the greatest blows against racism in its history – the election of President-elect Barack Hussein Obama. This is the culmination of a two-year campaign for the son of an immigrant African father and a white Irish-American mother born and raised in middle America Kansas. Obama qualified the election success as “a defining moment” for America in his victory speech.
No matter your take on his politics – either from the left or right – president-elect Obama will be considered an American epic figure. He has smashed the race barrier and the glass ceiling, and he did it not just with the black vote, but a quilt of votes from all races, national origins, ages, party affiliations, ethnic groups, and ideological inclinations. The vote count bears this out. But the story is also about white America that favored the Democratic candidate by 43%, a higher margin than that received by Senator John Kerry in his 2004 presidential bid. While blacks and Latinos can claim him as “our” president, the reality is that the combined votes of blacks and Latinos would not have been sufficient to sweep him into office. This speaks volumes for white voters who did not allow race to be a factor in their determination to select the new father of our country.
What mattered more to the voters, according to exit polls, was the economy – by a margin of 68%. Interestingly, the issue of immigration did not even rate as an interest of concern to the voters, notwithstanding the hardboiled anti-immigrant campaigning during the primary elections by the Republican Party.
The “Yes We Can” (Si Se Puede) slogan encapsulated the spirit of Americans across the board who wanted change, and fought for it with expressions of hope and reconciliation. It is a slogan taken straight out of the playbook of Cesar Chavez in mounting the movement to organize farmworkers in California during the 1960s. It is a slogan now chanted by Americans across the country to reflect their optimism about creating a different country, about creating change. It is an adamant and defiant chant, repeated by Obama before half-a-million celebrants in Chicago last night, which poses a positive determination of what will come. This is how Cesar presented his case at a different historic juncture.
We have overcome, the words uttered by an African American woman celebrating in Chicago after the announcement of the results, and overheard by a television commentator. This is the past tense of those words declared in a televised speech by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 when he introduced the Voting Rights Act to the U.S. Congress – we shall overcome – words that he appropriately appropriated from the civil rights movement that demanded and struggled to obtain this legislation. It is said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. openly wept when he saw and heard President Johnson on television repeat those words. He said that he never thought he would live to see a white man embrace this slogan. But King, like Obama 44 years later, was responsible for bringing together the political and social forces to create the opportunity and the moment.
This election reveals who we are as a people, and reveals this to the world. Does anyone ever remember when people throughout the world celebrated the victory of a U.S. presidential candidate as they did for the Obama victory as if to embrace him as their own president and their own victory? This is what the major media networks have reported.
Spike Lee characterized the moment as historic for the country, and that now we will reference U.S. history as BBO and ABO – Before Barack Obama and After Barack Obama. Doug Wilder, the former first black governor of Virginia, said he was “proud of America, and especially proud of Virginia.” Pat Buchanan, an extremely conservative author and television pundit declared, “the Republican Party lost the Reagan Democrats in this election.” Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., (D- Illinois), observed, “The genius of the Obama campaign was that he ran as an American who happened to be an African American.”
The American electorate has grown as a result of this election cycle – an estimated 133 million people voted, eleven million more than in 2004, 64% of the eligible voters. Blacks increased their share of the electorate to 13%, two percent above their role in 2004. Some other figures help to understand the moment. Blacks voted for Obama by a margin of 95%, Latinos by 66%, and young voters also by 66% – in political parlance this is a super-majority. Latinos brought home the winning of the West by voting more than 2-1 for Obama in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. The Latino support in Nevada – an important swing state – for the first black president of the nation was 74%. And, the united black and Latino vote in Florida was responsible for carrying this state. This Latino electorate performance smashes forever the racist myth rolled out by many media pundits after the Super Tuesday primaries in February that Latinos would never vote for a black man for president. Latinos proved them wrong – big time.
I’M VOTING FOR THE BLACK MAN
In December 2007, I attended an immigration conference in Houston, Texas. I took a taxicab to return to the airport, and struck up a conversation with the driver, an African American, and it eventually got to the elections. I asked him whom he was supporting for president. Without missing a beat, he responded, “I’m voting for the black man.” He added that “the first 43 presidents have been white men, so why not give the black man a chance, he couldn’t do any worst.”
The logic was compelling. One month later the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), for which I serve as national president, celebrated its endorsement convention and the hundreds of delegates unanimously voted to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president. The organization formed MAPA FOR OBAMA chapters and joined the campaign. The members resolved to cast their lot with our black brothers and sisters and look forward to the “change we need” – the Obama campaign slogan.
Many tears were shed, including my own, at the sheer delight of hearing president-elect Obama pronounce his speech at Grant Park in Chicago. I am proud of my president-elect, proud of white America, proud of the black community who demonstrated leadership, patience, and discipline moving towards this election, and proud of Latinos who showed the world that it is willing to support a candidate for the content of his character and not the color of his skin. The latter was a confirmation of what I have always experienced in life.
Obama’s victory speech was somber in my interpretation and he took great pains to lower expectations within the context of expressing optimism, accomplishment, gratitude, and reflecting on the historic moment in reference to Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He staked out a laudatory posture of reconciliation and reaching across the isle in a big way. This is how he intends on governing in a too-fractured America.
Like many other Americans, I too am banking on Obama just as Obama banked on Latinos to win the West. There is probably no issue of great import to the country that could not be considered a Latino issue. Everything in his platform speaks to our needs – the economy, financial markets, a more progressive tax policy, homeownership, ending the war in Iraq, re-building the infrastructure, global warming, the development of alternative energy sources and ending our dependence on fossil fuels, universal healthcare, and certainly, comprehensive immigration reform. We have everything to benefit from this presidency, but it will more likely occur by continued organizing, mobilizing, and being present, and being counted.
We should have no illusions about the speed of change we need and want, or about the ability of president-elect Barack Obama to deliver. There will be great difficulties. President Bush will hand over a basket-case of a country, two wars, a half-a-trillion dollar budget deficit, a doubled national debt of $11 trillion, millions of home foreclosures, one million jobs lost during the last twelve months alone, and a economic recession that will only deepen. These are overarching challenges for any new president. But, these too are our challenges. And, from crisis comes opportunity.
Nativo V. Lopez is currently the National President of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and Hermandad Mexicana Latinomamericana (HML), which requires of him full-time advocacy for the civil, human, labor, and immigrant rights of Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Latinos throughout the United States. He was a lead organizer in the 2006 pro-immigrant marches and was part of the creation of the National Alliance for Immigrant’s Rights (NAIR) in Chicago, Illinois. For more information, go to http://nativolopez.blogspot.com/.