This week, Barak Obama became the first African American to be elected to the US presidency. I join the nation in supporting our new president and rejoicing in the progress our country has made in breaking racial divides. I have no doubt that this event will be written in textbooks as one of the most important historical events of my generation.
With Barak Obama’s success, there has been a deluge of articles, talk shows, radio shows, and interviews discussing our nation’s history and the struggle for racial equality. And again, I am very proud of our nation for getting to this point.
However, no one (to my knowledge) is talking about what did NOT happen during this election. And I don’t mean the fact that a republican was not elected. Any republican candidate would have had a very difficult uphill battle given our economic crisis, troubles in Iraq, and Bush’s low approval rating.
In 1994, I was a junior in high school. Like many high school students, I was more concerned with establishing my independence, defining who I was, and gaining acceptance from my peers. I was not all that concerned about history or politics. But in that year, I took an American History class that changed my life. I had an excellent teacher who made history come alive, and taught me the importance of voting, of having my voice heard through the democratic process.
But there was one question that my history teacher posed to our classroom that I will never forget. “Who do you think will become president first: an African American man, or a Caucasian woman?” Today, we know the answer to that question, but in 1994, the answer was not so clear. My opinion at the time was that an African American man would become president first. My logic was that African American men were granted the right to vote by the 15th amendment in 1870, long before women were granted this same right by the 19th amendment in 1920. Though African Americans were initially prevented from voting by several unjust methods including poll taxes and “test questions” that could not be answered correctly, by law they were granted the right to vote 50 years before women! 50 years!
And so, what did NOT happen during this election? A Caucasian woman was not elected. However, this election was extremely unique because in addition to having an African American man running for president, we also had a Caucasian woman running for the same position in the same party. Moreover, the opposing republican candidate selected a Caucasian woman as his running mate. Clearly, the equality between genders has also come a very long way.
But still, an African American man was elected first. And so, while we rejoice in the progress our country has made and give full support to our new president, shouldn’t we also be asking ourselves why an arguably well qualified woman was NOT elected? Was it really because Barak Obama was more qualified? I truly hope this is the case! But what if it’s not? Do woman still have a glass ceiling hanging above them? What qualities do we think are important for a president to have? Do we see those as more masculine or feminine qualities? How would we really feel about having a female president?
Finally, we should evaluate the question that my history teacher asked. He did NOT ask who would become president first, an African American man, a Hispanic man, or an Asian man? He did not ask about religious affiliations or sexual orientation.
I believe that while we celebrate our nation’s progress in breaking the racial divide between African Americans and Caucasians, we must also evaluate the other divides that still persist in our country and the work that must still be done to break them. I believe in the equality of all people regardless of race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. And I believe, at some point, so will our country.