Does Obama's election change the way we think about race?

Kansas City StarNovember 7, 2008 

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, Tenn., 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 wouldn’t — 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,’ ” said Jhally. “In terms of overall race relations, it was one step forward and two steps back.”

How Obama 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 expect an Obama administration will be more aggressive on that count.

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