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More Perspective…

- November 7, 2008

Shortly before Election Day, Jennifer Hochschild, a sometime denizen of The Monkey Cage, published a thoughtful piece in the Harvard Crimson about what then appeared to be the imminent election of Barack Obama. In part, she looked forward to how an Obama presidency might play out in the future. Here, though, I want to call your attention to the part in which she looked backward, setting the 2008 campaign in historical context.

bq. Most American voters appear to support Barack Obama for the presidency. The fact that the presumed winner is a young man with little national governing experience, a middle name shared with a notorious villain, and a last name only one letter away from that of the United States’ public enemy number one is extraordinary. Add to that, of course, that his mother is white and his father African, so our presumed next president will be nonwhite, or even “black.”

bq. Unsurprising as these observations are, it still seems worthwhile to underscore just how astonishing this outcome will be if it occurs. Here are a few facts that might help those under age 25 understand better why those of us over age 50 are walking around with dropped jaws.

bq. In my lifetime, blacks in some southern communities were in grave physical danger if they did not step off the sidewalk when a white person approached them. During my childhood, Virginia’s governor and many educators closed entire public school systems for years so that schools could not be desegregated. When I was in my teens, black and white activists were murdered for trying to ensure the franchise for black citizens. As recently as my young adulthood, three-fourths of whites agreed in a national survey that “blacks shouldn’t push themselves where they’re not wanted.”

bq. The idea that a black man would within a few decades be elected president with strong white support would have seemed ludicrous to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. just as much as to Malcolm X or George Wallace.

bq. Almost as astonishing to people of a certain age is the fact that Obama’s main rival in the Democratic primaries was a woman. Here too it is worth recalling a few facts to remind those under 25 how much the world has changed since their faculty were young.

bq. In my teens, a best-selling book, “The Feminine Mystique,” amazed and shocked readers by asserting that women were not fully satisfied by submerging their identities completely in the wishes and actions of their husbands and children. When I entered college, women’s dormitories had housemothers, midnight curfews, open-door requirements for dorm rooms, and sign-in sheets for male guests. When I entered graduate school, the female students held their annual meeting to inform newcomers which male faculty could be trusted always, sometimes, or never (we took careful notes). Just a few years later, a prominent professor wondered in a faculty meeting if female graduate students were like the wolf children of Avignon, and never would overcome their unsatisfactory childhood socialization. Over a third of both men and women agreed in the General Social Survey as late as 1974 that “women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men”

bq. No wonder that we cannot stop reading political blogs, obsessing about the newest poll, and struggling to find something in the political science literature to explain this election.