Whatever Obama accomplishes, his election was a breakthrough

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration could be a line where future scholars mark the start of a new era of racial tolerance in America. At the same time, scholars and even Obama loyalists warn that the ultimate meaning of his ascension shouldn't be written into the history books just yet.

The Obama's election victory says much about race relations in the U.S. today. It illustrates that a country ripped apart over civil rights little more than a generation ago is now calmly ready to embrace an African-American president.

"Fifty years ago the battles were over whether blacks and whites could go to the same school or eat in the same restaurants," said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics. "The fact that an African-American has been elected is pretty amazing."

Race relations are still evolving in America, however. Obama won an election that arguably any Democrat could've won. He still has to prove himself an effective leader. And he'll lead a country that's been become more politically polarized during the past 20 years.

The consensus, though, is that Obama's election at least shows that race barely matters to most people when they pick a leader. In the vanguard of that change are people under 40. They grew up in an America where people of color were routinely part of daily life — at schools and shops, and at sporting and social events.

Reinforcing the routine nature of such encounters were media images. After the late 1960s, it was more common for people of all races to appear in ads, star in TV shows, sports and movies, and win local, state and federal political offices.

"The election of Barack Obama is the logical next step" in that evolution, said Richard Morin, senior editor at the Pew Research Center.

That step, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran civil rights leader, is part of the ongoing march toward a more tolerant nation.

"To see this young leader, beautiful family, lovely wife, two beautiful young daughters, it's going to send the strongest possible message not just to Americans," he said, "but to people around the world, that America is on its way to the creation of a more perfect union."

Obama, born in 1961, 15 years later than the two presidents who preceded him, also sends another signal: "It's a new generation of leadership," said Angela Oh, a Los Angeles attorney and former member of President Bill Clinton's Race Initiative board.

Still, some factors threaten to erode the sense that Obama's ascension is a seminal moment.

"We still have to have some hard conversations (on race)," she said. "People want change right now, immediately. That's not going to happen."

In fact, said Katheryn Russell-Brown, the director of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, Obama's election may make some think that the struggle for racial equality is over.

"Some people may think that there is less work to do," she said.

Obama must demonstrate to the entire range of the American population, however, that his victory was symbolic of a new era and a new politics, which will take some time. Republican John McCain, after all, won 46 percent of the vote.

"It isn't like the entire country is swooning," added George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

"I wonder if without the Iraq war Obama would have been elected. Or suppose Hillary Clinton had contested the caucus states?" asked Mitchel Sollenberger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

It's hardly unusual for a new president to be hailed as the harbinger of a new era, and sometimes he is. Ronald Reagan put a conservative stamp on government that lasted for decades. Bill Clinton practiced a centrist form of Democratic politics that may influence Obama. And eight years ago, George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove spoke of forging a political realignment that would assure Republicans majorities for years to come — though elections in 2006 and 2008 seem to have interrupted, if not shattered, that vision.

Today, most analysts agree on this much: Obama is the first leader to show that skin color no longer is an impediment to the highest American achievement. Whatever else he accomplishes as president, his election achieved that breakthrough.

"The acutely dark-skin-averse white voters are exiting history," said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, "and their replacements, 18-29, are far more likely to be impressed by intellect, stylishness, and the promise of liberal reform, even if by another name."

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