Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

The Declining Significance of Presidential Races?

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

The Declining Significance of Presidential Races?

Article excerpt

I

INTRODUCTION

In 1978, Professor William Julius Wilson released his controversial book, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. He argued that once the United States became a modern industrial society, class, rather than race, began to function as the most influential factor in determining the life chances of Blacks. (1) Wilson explained, "It is difficult to speak of a uniform black experience when the black population can be meaningfully stratified into groups whose members range from those who are affluent to those who are impoverished." (2) According to Wilson, the modern industrial world has provided unprecedented opportunities for talented and educated Blacks, "opportunities that are at least comparable to those of whites with equivalent qualifications." (3) As a consequence, Wilson maintained, social reform and public-policy programs in modern society needed to go beyond the limits of race and ethnicity to more directly "confront[] the pervasive and destructive features of class subordination" that detrimentally affect the black lower class. (4)

Nearly thirty years later, as Senator Barack Obama became the first black candidate to viably pursue the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, the Pew Research Center released survey results that, in many ways, affirmed Wilson's arguments about the declining significance of race. The survey results exposed a widening gap between the values of middle-class Blacks and poor Blacks. In that survey, thirty-seven percent of Blacks indicated that black people could no longer be thought of as a single race because of the diversity within the community. (5) Indeed, the survey confirmed--somewhat--Wilson's prediction about the increasing isolation of the black lower class within society. As the Pew Research Report indicated, "[B]lacks with lower incomes and less education ... [we]re most inclined to see few shared values between middle class and poor blacks--suggesting that the perception of differences over values and identity within the African American community is felt most strongly by those blacks at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum." (6)

In a sense, the ascendancy of Obama to the U.S. Presidency substantiates Wilson's contentions. "[T]he relative role race plays in determining black life chances in the modern industrial period" has certainly shifted. (7) But for Obama's socioeconomic class--as determined by his education at Columbia University and Harvard Law School and his job status as a law professor and senator at both the state and federal levels--Obama never could have realistically pursued the Presidency in the United States, much less have won it.

Yet, at the same time that Obama's ascendancy to the Presidency helps to affirm Wilson's assertions about the declining significance of race and the increasing significance of class in the life chances of Blacks, it also works to disaffirm those assertions. Obama's road to the Presidency--specifically the obstacles he faced through the rhetoric and advertisements of his detractors and opponents--exposes how, regardless of his income, profession, or education, Blacks cannot escape negative race and class stereotypes? First, just as Obama's education and income had worked to open up the presidential office as a realistic opportunity for him, they also worked against him, making what should have been an easy election for Democrats a fairly close one. As Vince Pisano, a white union plumber in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, indicated just days before the election, "If Obama were white, this would be a landslide around here." (9) White voters--in particular working-class, poor, and less-educated Whites--were reluctant to support a black man for President. (10) Representative Lynn Westmoreland even referred to both Michelle and Barack Obama as "uppity," "a word applied to African-Americans who attempted to rise above servile positions" in the segregated South. …

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