What Obama's win means to the issue of race
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Shortly before President-elect Barack Obama's historic victory Tuesday, scholars of race relations in America and local civil rights leaders expressed elation at the prospect of a black man being elected the leader of the free world during their lifetimes.
Despite that monumental victory, their emotions were tempered by the idea that racism, in both its overt and more subtle forms, is still prevalent, and that disparities between blacks and whites persist in many realms of American life.
"I will have faith that's leavened by experience," Derrick A. Bell Jr., a visiting professor of law at New York University, said prior to Tuesday's vote. "I certainly hope he wins ... but I will not feel that the problem of racism and the destruction it creates will have disappeared with [his victory]."
Still others used Mr. Obama's success as evidence that racism is not so deeply embedded in American society and that it is not as prevalent as some sociologists and civil rights activists suggest.
"People will still argue that blacks can't win," said Abigail Thernstrom, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York and the vice-chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "I think most Americans will feel, 'Wait a minute, we've just elected a black man as the leader of the free world ... Don't tell me blacks can't win.' "
Many ascribed Sen. Obama's success at least in part to the economic crisis and the unusual unpopularity of the Bush administration.
"Barack is very competent. He's also very lucky," said Mr. Bell. "If these were good times, I'm not sure he'd be doing so well. Our economy is in the toilet and a lot of people are hurting."
Polls have also shown that Mr. Obama would have fared better if he were white.
"There's a double standard: For a black man to become president ... the white candidate before him has to be in so much disfavor and he has to have this huge competitive advantage to win," said Tim Vining, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and the former director of the Thomas Merton Center for Peace & Justice.
Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, has played off this phenomenon, trying to draw in voters who might have more of a problem with Mr. Obama's skin color than with his economic policies.
"Close your eyes, and let me read you the policies of Barack Obama and John McCain and any worker in his right mind or her right mind would say, [Mr. Obama's] policies are for us," he said in an interview.
He accused the Republicans of "race-baiting," using Mr. Obama's race in subtle ways to scare white voters.
"It's a subject that we in the labor movement have a special obligation to address, because we know better than anybody else how racism is used to divide working people, and how we all lose when we allow it to exist," he said.
Ms. Thernstrom has long contended that the dearth of successful black candidates on the national scene is not because of a racist electorate. Rather, she says, it's because black politicians have been unwilling to run in majority-white congressional districts as a step toward national prominence and because black candidates frequently run on "black agendas."
"We have been increasingly a racially tolerant society ... black candidates have not been willing to test that proposition by running in districts that are majority-white," she said. "There's been good polling data for a long time of whites' willingness to vote for black candidates."
In his speech "A More Perfect Union," delivered in Philadelphia March 18, Mr. Obama addressed the issue of racism in the United States in a way that was "unusual for politics," said Delia Baldassari, a Princeton University assistant professor of sociology who studies social divisions and politics.
"What Obama was trying to do in that speech was to understand stereotypes. ... He addressed the problem more as an academic, trying to understand the motivations of both sides," she said. "Usually, as politicians, we take one side."
Mr. Vining said Mr. Obama's biracial heritage and his upbringing by a white grandmother play a role in his ability to see both perspectives and to, in a sense, understand white bigotry.
"There he is saying, 'I've got white bigots in my family,' " he said. "Even when he talks about white racism, he doesn't talk about 'them' ... because he's biracial I do believe that he has an insight into the topic that others don't."
In both rhetoric and policy proposals, Mr. Obama addressed issues that disproportionately affect African-Americans -- such as unemployment and poverty -- in a way that acknowledged that many whites face these same issues, said Mr. Bell, who grew up in Pittsburgh's Hill District and was the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School.
"The way to make progress for blacks is to recognize that the problems that blacks are having with jobs ... are dramatically the same problems that white folks have," said Mr. Bell. "To say that you're trying to do something about the lack of health care in this country, it's not a black issue, it's not a white issue, it's an American one. ... Obama has picked up on that."
But Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke University, believes that Mr. Obama took his message of unity too far, strengthening the argument of those who say racism is no longer a factor in American life. He also worries that whites will use voting for Mr. Obama as a token of absolution.
"What is the symbolic value for white folks? For them, it's a symbol of finally, we are beyond race. ... We have a black president, we can no longer be called racist," he said.
This also troubles Mr. Vining, who is white.
"I think some people voting for Obama ... will say, 'OK, I'm not culpable for racism right now,' " he said. "What doesn't get said is ... racism is not one act that I do or don't do, it's about a system that privileges me."
Ward Connerly, a black attorney based in Sacramento who founded the conservative American Civil Rights Institute, believes that Mr. Obama's success, particularly his broad base of support from both blacks and whites, signifies that this type of systemic racism no longer exists.
"How can it be with that level of popular support that America is institutionally racist," he said. "For those who've said, 'We're not there yet '... this clearly raises the question of where is 'there'? If we're not there yet, with a black man on the threshold of being carried into the Oval Office, I don't know."
But most experts, regardless of where they stood on the state of race relations in the United States, expressed optimism that Mr. Obama's success would inspire a re-examination on issues of race in this country.
Mr. Trumka of the AFL-CIO said it's part of the reason he decided to address racism publicly in the campaign, with the hopes that local union leaders would start a dialogue.
"Once you start talking about it, you start to understand how irrational it is," he said. "I think it's been too long in this country since we've had an honest conversation about race and racism and prejudice."
"We know that Barack Obama will not mean that racism will end on the day he says, 'I promise to uphold,' " said Bev Smith, host of a Pittsburgh-based national radio show. "What we are praying is that it will begin a dialogue in America [about something] that people do not want to talk about."
Ms. Smith said the young white Obama supporters reminded her of "those in Selma registering blacks to vote" in the 1960s, and, in them, she sees hope in them helping to start a dialogue about race.
"Those young white students ... my hope is that they will come forward and say 'We need to talk,' " she said.
First Published November 9, 2008 12:00 am