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U.S. accepts Black President, struggles with other social advances

by Robin Chen Delos

Americans made history this week by electing their first Black president while banning affirmative action and gay marriage at the same time.

In some cases, such as in California, Black and Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly supported President-elect Barack Obama, also helped lead the way in revoking laws that allowed gay couples to marry.

So does this mean Americans, including ethnic minorities, can accept a Black president but are still not ready for other progressive initiatives?

While the country is becoming more tolerant, some scholars suggest it is not completely ready to embrace some hot-button cultural policies, especially when it comes to homosexuality and pocket-book issues.

People voted for Obama because they felt he was the better candidate, says Toni-Michelle Travis, a political scientist who specializes in race issues at George Mason University. But when it comes to policies that impact voters financially, such as affirmative action, it is not surprising that many voters are less accepting, she adds.

When voting on economic issues people feel more threatened, Travis says, and they ask themselves, “‘can I get a job, or is the government going to favor ‘those people.’ When you get to issues that affect your family and personal well being, I think race takes on a different tone.”

Affirmative action programs hang in the balance in Colorado where 53 percent of the voters favored Obama over Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, according to The Associated Press. Nebraska voters – the majority of whom cast their ballots for McCAin – also rejected affirmative action programs.

In Florida, voters rejected allowing same-sex marriage or civil union rights for gay couples; these same voters supported Obama 50.9 percent over McCain, who garnered 48.4 percent of the state’s vote.

Arizona voters also rejected gay marriage and Arkansas stopped gay couples from adopting children in Tuesday’s election. Neither state backed Obama.

A little more than 61 percent of California voters cast ballots for Obama, while 52 percent of them also voted to outlaw gay marriage.

It should come as no surprise that Blacks actually helped tip the scale for California’s gay marriage ban — also known as Proposition 8 — author and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in a column Thursday.

“The cruel irony is that the holy passion that propelled Black voters to storm the polls in near record numbers to vote for Barack Obama tipped the scales in favor of Proposition 8,” Hutchinson wrote. “That wasn’t the only Obama irony. Prop 8 backers flooded mailboxes in mostly Black neighborhoods with a mailer that featured a stern-faced Obama and his horribly out of context quote saying that he opposed gay marriage.”

Back in Colorado, where voters were asked whether to prohibit the state government from granting preferential treatment to individuals based on race, gender or national origin, election officials are still counting ballots. As of Thursday afternoon officials there said the measure has a 50 percent chance of failing.

Jesse Ulibarri, an affirmative action supporter who has spent the past year trying to educate Colorado voters about what a ban would mean, says the ballot question was worded in a deceptive way.

“Most people do see the need for equal opportunity programs,” says Ulibarri, economic justice director for the Colorado Progressive Coalition. Voters just didn’t understand the language on the ballot. The amendment was called a civil rights initiative but it effectively rolled back civil rights, Ulibarri adds.

Perhaps some voters misunderstood the question on the ballot, but others who voted to ban affirmative action may simply have done so because they believe it is no longer necessary, says Caitlin Howarth, national policy director at the Roosevelt Institution, a student policy organization that engages new generations in progressive activism.

Those voters might have actually used Obama’s historical race for the presidency as a way to justify their vote to end affirmative action programs, Howarth says.

Some voters looked at Obama and saw his example as a Black man achieving so much, that it proved there is no more need for equal opportunity programs, she adds.

Though many voted against affirmative action and gay rights issues, Americans are becoming more tolerant, says Dr. Ronald Inglehart, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

The country is more accepting of homosexuality but less accepting of gay marriage, says Inglehart who studies cultural trends, values and attitudes. That is akin “to putting it on par with heterosexual marriage,” which requires a “heightened tolerance,” he adds.

Still, Inglehart says, even a decade ago most Americans would not have accepted a Black president, which shows that the country is becoming more accepting. “Obama’s election was a huge milestone but it’s not as though it began this year, it’s in keeping with a long-term change [towards more tolerance] that’s been going on for decades.”

While times are changing for the better in America, there is still more work to be done, according to Ulibarri. “Obama leaving the U.S. Senate means there will be no more African Americans there,” he says. “So are we really there yet?”

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