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Americans Weigh Racial Impact of 2008 Election Campaign


In Super Tuesday’s primary election contests in 23 US states, Democratic party voters were faced with choosing between the first African-American and the first woman frontrunners for the US presidential nomination. With interest at a peak, both Americans and observers overseas are involved exploring the historic diversity of the contest. But many are also discussing how race relations could be impacted by the primary vote. Vanderbilt University political science and law professor Carol Swain says that Senator Barack Obama’s stunning successes in early primaries have served to empower African-American voters and given them their most realistic chance ever of seeing a mainstream party black presidential nominee.

“Many African-Americans had not heard of him, and as Senator Obama got more and more national and international coverage, and certainly after he had won in Iowa, almost immediately, he became a person that people could realistically see winning the nomination,” she said.

In one scenario, Professor Swain foresees a possibility that if Senator Obama were eventually to lose the nomination, disillusioned blacks and young voters might stay at home in November’s general election and skip voting for a prospective alternative Democratic candidate like Senator Hillary Clinton for president. And if Senator Obama were to win the presidential nomination and lose the general election, she says his loss might be attributed to racism rather than to a lack of experience and his relative youth.

“Even if Senator Obama is able to win the Democratic nomination, there’s no guarantee that he would prevail in the general election. And there’s the possibility that if he doesn’t get the nomination, blacks decide that the country is racist and they vote in smaller numbers for the Democrats. If he does get the nomination and loses the general election to a Republican, blacks decide that the nation is racist and they become disengaged. So in many ways, I think it’s going to be a test of race relations in the future,” she notes.

In a general election, Professor Swain argues that Obama’s relative inexperience in government might make it easy for a seasoned prospective Republican nominee like Senator John McCain to win the election. But she notes that apprehensive voters might still view an Obama defeat as a double-edged sword, attributing racial overtones as contributing to the Democrat’s downfall.

“I don’t think it should be, but I think that many people will view any defeat of Senator Obama as evidence of racism, not necessarily the fact that someone has to lose in the political process, and the fact that he has so much less experience than someone like Senator McCain is likely to play a factor in how voters decide in the general election, should he become the nominee,” cautions Swain.

On the international front, Professor Swain is upbeat about how the diversity of this year’s candidates can win respect for America’s image abroad. She says that citizens of African and other third world countries can draw inspiration from the openness of the selection process of both parties in the 2008 US campaign.

“I know that in some third world countries, there’s the perception that black people are just totally oppressed people in the US and that many of them missed the progress we’ve made in race relations. It might transform some of that negative perception of how blacks in the United States actually live their lives, and I think that Senator Obama’s rise says more about social class than other things about America rather than purely race,” she notes.

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