Are we making “history” either way?

After an end of the summer break, I have returned to the blogosphere, and a hefty bit of news has transpired during my hiatus.  Most notably on the race/gender front, Democrats officially nominated Barack Obama as their nominee for the presidency of the United States and Republicans are set to nominate John McCain for the same, in addition to Sarah Palin, his VP pick.

Yesterday, the guests on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” included Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two young Republicans analyzing the current convention.  [You can here the audio of the program here.]  One of the callers to the show made the remark that, either way, “we” are going to make history this year in November–the U.S. will be electing a black man president or a woman vice president.

As a historian, seemingly “common sense” assertions like these (increasingly common as November approaches) interest me to no end.  Are these historic times in the political life of the United States?

Of course, to the historian, they always are.  If we can analyze its significance to the past or present, it is “history.”  When we use that word in our daily analysis, however, we mean something more by it.  What we mean is monumental change, something that has not happened before, a singular moment when something out of the typical happened.  In the narrow confines of U.S. political culture (which is nether as broadly significant as it supposes to be or as insignificant as many would like), what happens this November will be “historic” on some level, either way.  But that is not to say we should expect the election to produce significant change.  This election is noteworthy, but not necessarily as meaningful as some would hope.

Both the cases of Obama and Palin are illuminated by the study of the past.  In particular, my thoughts turn to the legendary Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.  She ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972–a woman and an African American and a true progressive–and, yet, has received far too little mention this past year.  In her 1970 autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote:

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black, and a woman proves, I would think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

Chisholm, never one to let her status as a Black woman be used for the purposes of absolution for a national record of historic oppression, carefully avoided the very common place and common sense analysis of her achievements at the time.  Most saw her “historic” career as proof of her individual success, as well as evidence that the system of the past was changing, however slowly.  But Chisholm doesn’t make her election about herself, she makes it about the system at large.  She diffuses the significance of representation, saying instead that the odd interest in it only serves to highlight the continuing inequalities and inequities in society at large.

Shirley Chisholm knew the historic record of racial and gender oppression was not about representation, about whether or not women and people of color were “allowed” to attain visibility.  In other words, the lack of women or persons of color in nationally-elected offices was not the problem.  It was a symptom of the problem.  The problem was always a larger collection of institutionalized beliefs which held that both women and nonwhites were inferior.  These beliefs–once situated as the rationale of a political system–become the “common sense” of how it operates.  Of course there are no women or Black presidents.  Of course all presidents are white males.

In a way, if racism and sexism were just about representation, neither would be a real problem today.  The solution to each would be clear, achievable, and easy to measure.  If both were just about peoples’ belief systems, we’d be fine, too. But sexism and racism are not that simple.  Both have much more to do with power and how it is allocated.  For example, the widespread belief in Black inferiority would have done nothing than strain interpersonal relations if it had not become institutionalized into our systems of power.  Once it had, it served as the rationale for distributing economic and political advantage.  In the 20th century, then, you have government bodies like the FHA giving out low cost loans to whites only, creating them into a legally protected, property-owning class, while Blacks and other nonwhites had to coninue to find alternate means of achieving that part of the “American Dream.”

Representation is but a symptom of those systems of power.  To make another analogy, you can cure a symptom without curing the cold.

These are seemingly simple differences of analysis but they carry heavy implications.  The election of Barack Obama or Sarah Palin into the executive branch of this nation’s government will be something that has never happened before.  It will carry with it an important set of consequences, helping to slowly dismantle and rebuild people’s expectations of leadership.  But, that is not change in and of itself.  Real change is rarely so easy and free of struggle.

Meaningful change in a society historically obsessed with disempowering people of color and women will be the (re)formation of egalitarian and equitable systems of power.  When we can produce equal measures of opportunity and success in this nation, then something really historic has occurred.

Of course, you don’t have to be a woman or a person of color to do that.

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