How Obama’s election affects race issues in America

[10 November 2008]

By Rick Montgomery and Scott Canon

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House raises anew the question of whether color lines, however faded, still exist in America.

They do - just look at housing patterns, church congregations and prison populations. But will the election of a biracial president - with the blessings of much, but not yet a majority, of white America - find the country concluding that it has finally overcome its race thing?

“One reaction might be, see, a black man can reach the top - why can’t the others?” said Christian Crandall, a social psychologist at the University of Kansas.

“There’s no way to avoid that problem,” he said. “It’s the price of success.”

Obama’s election may offer evidence to some white Americans that doors of opportunity once barred by racial bias have swung open.

“I wouldn’t buy the argument because I tend to measure things more by statistics” on persistent economic disparities between races, said Roderick Harrison, a sociologist at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on black issues. “It underestimates just how exceptional Obama is and the culmination of being the right person at the right time.”

Besides being the first African-American elected president, Obama is the first northern Democrat to win the White House since John Kennedy - and the first to come from a big city in several generations.

But it’s Obama’s skin color that rewrites history, and an unavoidable prism through which so many Americans - white, black and otherwise - will view the new president and the country.

“If there’s anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” Obama said, his election is “your answer.”

Research has shown that people of all races become more accepting of racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power through experience. Someone who has already worked for a black boss, for instance, or had important Latino clients, is less skeptical of their capabilities.

In that way, Harrison said, Obama’s mere presence could have an almost subconscious effect on how Americans view the capabilities of minorities.

For Charles McKinney of Rhodes College in Memphis, the thought of “my children growing up seeing a brother as the leader of the free world, that’s priceless.”

But opportunities for better racial understanding can backfire.

As much as white audiences admired TV’s Huxtables of “The Cosby Show,” research in the early 1990s revealed many viewers held the family up as a model to which other black families should - but would not - aspire.

“Bill Cosby’s white audience didn’t want to be reminded of America’s racial past,” said Sut Jhally, who wrote “Enlightened Racism” after conducting the studies for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “They loved the blackness, but only a certain kind of blackness. ...

“The unintended message was, ‘If you work hard, you can succeed ... and if you fail, the fault must be yours,’ ” Jhally said. “In terms of overall race relations, it was one step forward and two steps back.”

How Obama himself deals with race as chief executive is an open question.

The Bush administration has been widely criticized for what many believe was an abandonment of the Justice Department’s enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Civil rights groups also anticipate an Obama administration will be more aggressive on that count.

But when it comes to appointing people of color to his administration, pursuing issues like affirmative action or the setting aside of federal contracts for minority-owned businesses, some say Obama will not be under undue pressure to appease black voters or to calm anxious white Americans.

“Obama is going to decide what he’s going to push, and he’ll have pretty much whatever support he wants,” said David Bositis, a policy analyst at the Joint Center.

Obama owes his presidency neither to forces like the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that brought southern whites to Bill Clinton nor activists such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have tried to deliver black votes in the past.

Rather, Bositis said, Obama is the center of his own popularity.

“There’s no black leader who will be able to talk to Obama as the voice of black America,” he said. “The person who will count will be Barack Obama.”

Bositis and others also said that his attention to racial issues - particularly since they were not highlighted in the campaign - will come after he deals with the nation’s economy, health care and the wars in Iraq. And they say that his success in those areas will determine his ability to test public opinion and press racial issues.

People’s attitudes toward race-based policies shift depending on how the questions are asked. By and large, Americans tell pollsters that they oppose “preferences” based on race and feel more warmly to “giving help” to minorities.

“The interesting story was how little race was in play in the election campaign,” said Karlyn Bowman, who analyzes polls at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “It didn’t seem to come up much at all.”

One issue with the potential to scald - immigration reform - already is simmering on the legislative burner.

“Immigration will certainly throw sparks” when the Obama administration fulfills its pledge to tackle it, said Leonard Zeskind, author of a forthcoming book on racism and politics. “White nationalists are just waiting for that one ... to throw up their hand and say, ‘It’s the end of white America!’ “

Some extremist groups, though relatively invisible during the presidential campaign, have voiced back-handed support for an Obama presidency, saying it may cause whites to rise up in defense of their race.

The country may have elected a biracial candidate to the highest office in the land, but a poll taken at summer’s end suggests a significant number of Americans still harbor stubborn prejudices about black people.

In a national survey, half the country agreed with the statement that “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up, blacks should do the same without special favors.” Almost two in five agreed that blacks would be as well off as whites if they “would only try harder.”

A third of whites said that blacks are responsible for most or all of the country’s racial tension. And given a set of words to describe blacks, at least one in five whites agreed with “violent,” “boastful” and “complaining.” One in 10 agreed blacks are “lazy” or “irresponsible.”

So while white America can’t assume all is forgiven, neither can those who have battled racism expect that the mere presence of a black family in the White House protects black shoppers from the glares of sales clerks or racial profiling by police.

“Obama’s victory says we have the ability to transcend race, but we still have a huge opportunity to move ahead and do all that must be done next,” said Gwen Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. “We can’t just relax.”

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