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Amid Obama's historic campaign, questions about race relations in America persist

Gromer Jeffers Jr.
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

DENVER - When Barack Obama accepts his party's nomination for president Thursday night, 45 years to the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the course of race relations in America will change forever.

Or will it?

For a nation where the torrents of race have tainted history and threaten the future, Obama's historic nomination makes him the great hope of his party and a barometer of just how much the racial divide has narrowed.

Obama's nomination could deal a death blow to racial politics and the intolerance it often creates. Or racism could resurge with obvious and subtle attempts to stop a black man from winning the White House.

So for the next two months - and the next four years, if Obama wins - the nation is in uncharted territory.

"No one knows how this is going to play," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. "The Democratic Party showed us that we have come far enough to nominate an African-American for president. But now we're in the Super Bowl. The stakes are much higher than they were in the primary."

Will the country accept a black president? If Obama wins, what happens to black politics? And will Americans assume racism has been vanquished?

If the contentious Democratic primary and national polls are any indication, perceptions about race still hang over the American political process.

Ellis said he expected subtle attempts by anti-Obama groups to exploit that.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, agreed, saying the country is at a crossroads.

"There are people out there who are hurting and need the change that Obama can bring," he said. "They will have a choice on whether to vote for who they know in their heart is the best candidate, or bow to their fears about electing an African-American."

Past black candidates have shown strength among white voters in polls, only to see that support melt away once they got to the voting booth. Former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor, said Obama could have the same problem.

"Is it a factor still? Yes. But it's lessening," said Wilder, who was up by 15 points in late polls in 1989 but won the governorship by just 6,700 votes.

He said Obama's support was deep enough to overcome the same fate.

The symbolism of Obama's nomination is not lost on Democrats, especially those who have broken barriers of their own.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, was the first black woman to represent Dallas County in Congress.

"I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would see an African-American nominated for president," she said.

The primary season was an initial test of whether the country had moved beyond racial conflicts.

It was a test that was often failed.

Former President Clinton, a hero to black voters, suddenly became a villain for his post-South Carolina primary comments that compared Obama to Jesse Jackson. Clinton said the race card was played on him.

Obama was said by some to be a post-racial candidate because he came of age after the civil-rights movement. But then he had to give a major speech on race after the explosive comments of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, became must-see TV.

Some leaders, wary of what's happened to past minority candidates trying to make history, expect race could be a hurdle in the general election. Others say Obama's nomination is a good time to note progress.

"In America we always strive to be better, but sometimes it's good to step back and celebrate what we've accomplished," said Ron Kirk, who became Dallas' first black mayor in 1995 and a nominee for Senate in 2002. "You can't help but look around and see the diversity in the hall of government."

Obama's success raises questions about the future of black politics and the role race plays in society.

His nomination could open up opportunities for more minority candidates to successfully seek the highest offices in the land. But some also fear that a contentious general election campaign would create a backlash that could make Obama's victory a lonely one.

"Whether it's Obama or another elected official, there should be succession plans in place to assure the gains that have been made are not lonely victories," West said.

But state Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said he hoped Obama's success would trickle down to black candidates who have been relegated to serving in black districts.

"It will make it more likely that voters will elect a black land commissioner or a black governor," he said. "So many black elected officials get pigeonholed."

What of racism and inequality? If Obama goes on to win the White House, some will claim they have been eliminated, which could be a point of tension with black leaders and others.

"The issues of poverty, discrimination and access to health care have not gone away," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. "Obama's nomination is significant, but the struggle continues."

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said that even as problems persist, Obama could be the manifestation of King's dream.

"If Obama is elected president, it would mean the dreams and aspirations and the hard work over the last 45 years would have been realized," said Clyburn, a pioneer himself as the third-most powerful Democrat in the House. "After wandering in the wilderness, we will have reached the mountaintop, perhaps the promised land."

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