[Outlook]Reaching across the divide

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[Outlook]Reaching across the divide

Barack Obama has smashed through the glass ceiling of racism. He was elected the first black president of the United States, 143 years after the country had a civil war over slavery. The most moved are of course African-Americans, but the election result wasn’t only a victory for blacks.

An overwhelming 96 percent of African-Americans voted for Obama. Among whites, 43 percent choose Obama, while 55 percent voted for John McCain. Black voters account for only 13 percent of the population; white voters comprise 67 percent and Hispanics 15 percent. This means that Obama won the election because 43 percent of white voters supported him and didn’t pay attention to the color of his skin. Not that white people are more tolerant than blacks, the real victims of racial discrimination. But the whites who didn’t hesitate to vote for Obama can be said to be the true winners of the election.

There was no Bradley effect, a theory that describes how some white people may say they support a black candidate in polls, but then choose a white candidate in the election. As such, it wouldn’t be too much to say that American citizens have taken a major step toward overcoming racism.

Obama delivered his victory speech on the night of Nov. 4 at Grant Park in Chicago. In the address, he said, “I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - It belongs to you.”

By “you” he was referring neither to African-Americans, nor specifically those who voted for him. He meant all Americans who had undertook to change their country.

“As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies but friends,’” he continued.

“To those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I will hear your voices. I need your help.”

He promoted politics of integration and unity, and was able to become the first black president of United States thanks to this style of positive-minded leadership. In the Senate, he worked with Republican lawmakers to establish laws. When serving as the president of the Harvard Law Review, he took in conservative figures as editors. Had he regarded whites as enemies, it would have been difficult to become president. He earned white people’s support because he first tore down the wall of racism in his mind.

After the party primary was over, Obama even employed aides to Hillary Clinton in his camp. His presidential transition team includes many figures who worked under the Bill Clinton administration, including Wendy Sherman, a former advisor to the president. Obama sent Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state under the Clinton administration, to the G-20 summit along with former Republican Jim Leach, revealing his will to handle the economic crisis in a bipartisan manner.

In 1997, when Kim Dae-jung was elected the president of Korea, we were moved in a similar way. Back then, many thought it was impossible for a person from the Honam area to become president because Honam only had around half the population of the Yeongnam region. The conflict between the east and the west of Korea was extremely serious. Rhu Si-min was one of Kim’s supporters, but in his book he said he did not think it was possible for Kim to be elected.

Nevertheless, Kim kept trying. He moved to embrace Yeongnam and moderate conservatives. He employed former legislator Lee Ki-taek, a figure from Busan, in Yeongnam, former lawmaker Lee Jong-chan, and hired a female lawmaker as a representative. Kim also attempted to reconcile with the former president, Park Chung Hee. He won the election because he drew support from Yeongnam and areas other than Honam. After taking office, there were controversies caused by the fact that the personnel he employed were mostly from the Honam area, but as he made efforts to handle affairs fairly, he realized what was formerly regarded as the impossible.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun viewed all forces that disagreed with his line as enemies. He divided and classified differences distinctively. Even the ruling party members were sharply divided and fought against one another. It is not the job of the nation’s top leader to make the people feel ashamed and to ridicule them. If Obama pursued a policy against whites, he would fail as president.

Even though administrations change, such narrow-mindedness remains the same. The country’s economy is at risk, but Korea’s politicians are still busy with political rows. Not even mentioning the opposition party, members of the ruling party still have hard feelings from the party primary and point fingers at those who mingle with people from another camp. It is truly regrettable that even the so-called mainstream faction is divided and promotes only their specific group.


*The writer is a deputy chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Jin-kook

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