One seemed to have his destiny written for him at birth; the other methodically wrote his own. One had a cloistered upbringing that revolved around close family and powerful friends; the other lived an itinerant childhood and was a global student of life. One constantly questioned his place in the world; the other determinedly sought to make his mark on it. One made a name for himself, in part, by fighting a famous war; the other became famous partly for opposing a misguided one.
There are enough stark contrasts to make the constant comparison of Barack Obama to John F. Kennedy seem plain wrong. Certainly the two men share a preternatural charisma and poise that extends beyond mere political charm. And the captive pull the Obama family seems to exert over a stunning percentage of the American population has surely not been felt since the days of Camelot. But perhaps a more interesting comparison between Obama and Kennedy is one not of the men themselves but of their people. John F. Kennedy convinced voters to elect the nation’s first, and only, Catholic president at a time when many Americans were suspicious of Catholics and their allegiances to the Vatican. Barack Obama similarly surmounted white voters’ suspicions about African Americans’ presumed allegiance to a "black agenda."
Following Kennedy’s election, historians note, there was a shift in the way Catholics were perceived politically and socially. Perhaps as important, there was a noticeable shift in the way Catholics perceived themselves.
So, as we enter the Obama era, are blacks the new Catholics? Does Obama’s election help further mainstream black political aspirations and participation in a way that is similar to the experiences of Catholics during the Kennedy years? Does it widen white social acceptance of blacks? Does it make black people feel newly vested in the promise of America?
Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a Catholic university in the District of Columbia, is already seeing a shift among the mostly black student body. (It’s 70 percent black, 20 percent Latino.)
“I see it among my students,” she says. “There is now a greater sense of empowerment, and the rewards of engagement, and the importance of political participation. So I think this is a very important moment for young African Americans in particular. The Obama election represents possibilities they never thought would be seen in their lifetime.”
Of course, much is different about the histories and experiences in this country of white Catholics and African Americans. Though Catholics may not have been viewed as viable mainstream candidates in the 1960s, their rights as U.S. citizens were not in doubt as they were for blacks. “I don’t think they were feeling politically marginalized, or kept from full political participation,” McGuire says. “Although they were very pleased to see a Catholic win office, religion never isolated them in the way that race did for black people.”
Nor, at the time, did religion subject Catholics to blatant and institutionalized social and economic ostracism.
“People might have been suspicious of you because you were Catholic, but to be black went beyond suspicions and was an opportunity for you to be seriously harmed in some way,” says Ron Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of The Price of Racial Reconciliation.
In fact, the experience of Catholics in the ‘60s was not altogether different from the experience of blacks today—successful and active, both socially and politically, but yet often viewed as outside the mainstream. “I don’t think Catholics in 1960 felt that they weren’t part of the country, but when Kennedy became president it reinforced and enlarged the sense that they could achieve the American dream,” said John Kenneth White, a professor of politics and presidential scholar at Catholic University.
In the same way that Kennedy’s election helped to reinforce Catholics’ belief that they had full access to the American dream, suggested White, Obama’s win validates the strides, big and small, made by African Americans in recent decades. “It’s been coming for a while,” he says.
There is a danger, however, in putting too much emphasis on evolving self-perceptions. It can too easily let larger society off the hook. “We may have a very touchy-feely feeling about the result of the elections, but the harder question is what impact it will have,” Walters says. “Some people want to interrogate black folks’ behavior in terms of Obama’s election, but white people control the gateways, educational, economic, you name it. The extent that Obama has an impact on their behavior has a lot do to with the opportunities that are going to be open for blacks.”
There are no clear-cut markers that make a particular group officially part of the “mainstream.” The notion that white Catholics felt a more meaningful sense of inclusion in American politics and society after Kennedy’s election may not, in fact, be significant by any concrete measure. But social transformation is rarely clean and concrete. With dreams come “hope”—the most overused of Obama’s winning political mantras—and it’s sure to have even deeper resonance for black Americans on Jan. 20 than it did on Nov. 4.
“There’s this sense of a young president taking us in a new direction with fresh ideas and enlisting the American people in a common goal that is based on what is possible and not on the cynicism of the past, or the tired apathy of the past, or the sense that politics can do but so much,” says Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
It was under Kennedy that black people really began to feel that times were changing, and it’s because of Obama that they believe change has come. Perhaps that tie is the strongest, the straightest, the most meaningful of all.
Marjorie Valbrun is a regular contributor to The Root.