Defining Race: The Obama Phenomenon and the Voting Rights Act

By Nelson, Janai S. | Albany Law Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Defining Race: The Obama Phenomenon and the Voting Rights Act


Nelson, Janai S., Albany Law Review


I'm delighted to be a part of this exciting symposium exploring the definition of race--one of the most challenging concepts in this country's history, and one that has been made even more challenging by the historic and very promising time in which we find ourselves this November. I thank Professor Farley for inviting me to participate and the Albany Law Review and the Albany Journal of Science and Technology for organizing this symposium. I'd also like to thank the dean, the faculty, and the students here for supporting such an important topic.

I'd like to relate the topic of today's symposium--defining race--to the recent presidential election and, in particular, to Barack Obama's successful candidacy to become the first black President of the United States. Rather than deconstruct, redefine, or explore the definition of race, I will explore briefly whether race relations in the electoral arena have changed to such a degree that race and race- based remedies are no longer needed, and what evidence from this presidential election would allow us to measure that.

I posit that an appreciable amount of the excitement about Obama's victory and his candidacy overall is fueled by the implicit hope that his election will have far-reaching effects on the state of race relations and inequality in the United States. The results of a Gallup poll that was conducted earlier this year reflect this hope. The poll indicates that an overwhelming number of persons surveyed believe that Obama's election would open up great opportunities for other African-Americans in national politics. (1) A popular tee-shirt emblazoned with the statement "We had a dream and now it's a reality" further underscores the high expectations for this election. For others, Obama's win is a unique phenomenon--an aberration--not symbolic of any permanent shift in racial or electoral politics in America. There are even concerns that Obama's success may harm the interests of African-Americans because it will obviate the discourse on race, and we just heard from our previous speaker what some of the implications of such a result might be in the educational arena.

Today, I'd like to explore the somewhat conflicting implications of Obama's electoral success by focusing attention specifically on the growing number of electoral successes of African-American candidates in at-large elections in majority white--or at least not majority black-contests, and focusing on what these successes might mean for challenges to the path-breaking legislation that helped to set that entire trend in motion: the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (2) So, I'll begin by briefly recounting the modern narrative of Voting Rights Act successes and situating the Obama candidacy along a broader continuum of black elected officials. I'll then explore the predicted impact, if any, of Obama's success on the continued protection and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by using two recent federal court challenges as a frame.

In 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was first passed, young Barack Obama was just four years old. At the time there were only five black elected officials in Congress and less than 1,400 black elected officials nationwide. (3) By the end of the 1970s, when Obama was spending his formative years in Hawaii where certain jurisdictions are protected by the Voting Rights Act provisions that require bilingual voting assistance, the total number of black elected officials nationwide had more than doubled to nearly 5,000. (4) And by the 1990s, when Obama began his political career in Illinois, black elected officials were experiencing record successes throughout the country, ending the decade at nearly 10,000 in number. (5) Now there are more than 10,000 black elected officials. (6)

Beginning in the late 1990s and increasing steadily into this millennium, we've begun to see a thawing in at-large elections in non-majority black contexts. That is, we've witnessed instances of electoral success for black candidates without the assistance of majority-minority districts, and we've begun to see black officeholders elected to some of the most highly regarded positions of authority at federal, state, and local levels. …

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Defining Race: The Obama Phenomenon and the Voting Rights Act
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