How Do We Interpret Obama's Victory?

November 07, 2008

November 7, 2008 — In the days since Barack Obama's election, arguing over how to interpret the victory and what it means has become a national pastime. On Thursday evening, an "Election Post-Mortem" panel sponsored by the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute joined the debate that has filled countless hours of news and talk shows.

Obama's remarkable personal journey to the presidency can and will be interpreted in a variety of ways, the panel’s four speakers agreed. Some of those interpretations are uplifting, even inspirational, while others are disturbing, unconstructive or misleading, the panelists explained.

Valerie Cooper, a professor of religious studies, discussed how Obama's rhetoric emphasized the hope for a better future and a more perfect union, building on passages from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, including his famous phrase, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Obama built on that theme in his election night victory speech, when he characterized his election as an example of what can be achieved when Americans "put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

Cooper told a story from her own childhood to illustrate the importance of that hope, especially among African Americans.  She produced a black-and-white photo of herself in the 1950s at about age 4, on a visit to her grandparents in Charlottesville. Cooper was dressed in a U.Va. sweat shirt, a gift from her grandparents at a time when blacks were not allowed to attend the University. Her grandparents had "an incredible, enduring hope that someday things would be better" and she might be able to go to U.Va. Her becoming a professor at U.Va. went beyond their hopes, she said.

The idea of hope "might seem puny or very theological," said Cooper, but it is actually "a very powerful idea that has tremendous resonance in the African-American community and in the African-American imagination in this country." Obama's rhetoric and personal story have powerfully invoked hope, she said.  His election represents "African Americans’ being acknowledged as full citizens in this nation and expected to be full participants in this nation." Cooper ended her speech with a call to the U.Va. audience to be involved in the work of bending the arc of the universe toward justice.

Obama's remarkable personal journey from having been supported by welfare at times as a child to becoming president does not mean that racially linked inequalities and racial structures in society have been broken down, even though some will make that argument, said Timothy Lovelace, a doctoral student in history and assistant director of the Center for the Study of Race and Law.

It would not be the first time black success was seen as evidence of the demise of racism, said Bruce Williams, a professor of media studies. Bill Cosby created the hit TV series "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s to portray a successful middle-class black family, comparable to the many such white families on TV, he said. One study found, however, that white viewers saw the show as evidence of the disappearance of racism in the U.S., Williams said.

Some whites are already citing their vote for Obama as evidence of their lack of racism, Cooper noted.  Many middle age whites were seen crying and expressed catharsis at Obama speeches, said politics professor Lynn Sanders, implying that some may be viewing Obama's election as an atonement for the sins of white forebears. Sanders wondered whether such white supporters of Obama will react more dismissively in the future if confronted with evidence of racial inequality. 

As a specialist on race and gender in politics, Sanders has long studied the Bradley/Wilder effect of voters’ lying to pollsters about their intention to vote for a black candidate. Exit polls over the past 20 years had shown the effect declining to negligible levels, said Sanders, and Obama's election showed no signs of it. One reason for its disappearance, she noted, is that voters who harbor racist feelings can now explain their preferences under other, more socially acceptable, guises.  Other factors include the influx of young voters and genuinely shifted attitudes.

Lovelace questioned who put together Obama's image. The panelists noted several ways in which his image may have been tailored to make him more palatable to whites who might otherwise feel threatened by a masculine black man. Obama never raised his voice or expressed anger during the campaign, even when John McCain attacked him during the debates. In his victory speech, he expressed his love for his daughters, telling them that he would be getting them a puppy, noted Sanders. He was openly affectionate toward his wife, Michelle, and there were lots of images during the campaign of Obama hugging and holding children, leading some commentators to call him the first "father in chief," she added. One audience member, however, argued that all of those qualities could be seen as masculine.

Obama also shied away from strong advocacy for the poor, noted Lovelace. His focus on a tax cut for the middle class and his touting his use of an iPod appealed to educated, upper-income liberals and separated him from an earlier generation of black leaders. Were those aspects intentionally highlighted by his campaign? We don't know, Sanders said.

Journalists' reflections on a winning candidate often follow old themes, like the skill of the victor versus the incompetence of the loser and how the winner is a new type of candidate, said Williams. But such narratives obscure the reality that elections are significantly driven by factors beyond a candidate's control, such as the state of the economy. "McCain was dealt a bad hand," noted Williams. He was leading the polls in September and his support declined in tandem with the stock market's collapse. It’s important to acknowledge the structural factors that played a role in Obama's victory, he said, because those same factors may be working against him during the next election.

— By Brevy Cannon