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Monday, August 25, 2008

Black Fears of Obama Success

Here is an interesting New York Times piece featuring Roderick Harrison of Howard University on the multifaceted meanings of an Obama victory for the presidency. He speaks of being elated on the one hand that an African American has been elected to the highest office in the land. On the other, he fears whites will then perceive that “racial problems” have been solved. With the myths of “post-racial” and “racial transcendence” being associated Obama’ssuccess, the fears are not necessarily ill-founded. Yet, there is no mistaking that the election of Obama will not be an immediate cure for inequality or injustice. Unlike conservative administrations that have been hegemonic since the 1980s, however, an Obama administration will be receptive to seeking solutions those problems. But having said that: objective reality as it is will set the stage for struggle and movement toward equal opportunity and justice. RGN



August 25, 2008

Blacks Debate Civil Rights Risk in Obama’s Rise

By RACHEL L. SWARNS

WASHINGTON — On the night that Senator Barack Obama accepts the Democratic nomination for president, Roderick J. Harrison plans to pop open a bottle of Champagne and sit riveted before the television with his wife and 12-year-old son.

Mr. Harrison, a demographer who is black, says he expects to feel chills when Mr. Obama becomes the first black presidential candidate to lead a major party ticket. But as the Democratic convention gets under way, Mr. Harrison’s anticipation is tempered by uneasiness as he wonders: Will Mr. Obama’s success further the notion that the long struggle for racial equality has finally been won?

Mr. Obama has received overwhelming support from black voters, many of whom believe he will help bridge the nation’s racial divide. But even as they cheer him on, some black scholars, bloggers and others who closely follow the race worry that Mr. Obama’s historic achievements might make it harder to rally support for policies intended to combat racial discrimination, racial inequities and urban poverty.

They fear that growing numbers of white voters and policy makers will decide that eradicating racial discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity have largely been done.

“I worry that there is a segment of the population that might be harder to reach, average citizens who will say: ‘Come on. We might have a black president, so we must be over it,’ ” said Mr. Harrison, 59, a sociologist at Howard University and a consultant for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies here.

“That is the danger, that we declare victory,” said Mr. Harrison, who fears that poor blacks will increasingly be blamed for their troubles. “Historic as this moment is, it does not signify a major victory in the ongoing, daily battle.”

Such concerns have been percolating in black intellectual circles for months, on talk radio and blogs, in dinner conversations, academic meetings and flurries of e-mail messages crisscrossing the country.

It can be an awkward discussion for Obama supporters who argue that the success of the candidate — the man who might become America’s first black president — might make it somewhat more difficult to advance an ambitious public policy agenda that helps blacks. Some of Mr. Obama’s black supporters say that Mr. Obama himself, by rarely focusing on racial discrimination and urban poverty while campaigning, has often fueled the notion that the nation has transcended race.

Other supporters dismiss the idea that Mr. Obama’s success might undermine support for race-based policies. They say black voters should focus not on speculative debates but instead on helping him win the presidency, because his emphasis on solutions to problems like failing schools, unemployment and inadequate health insurance would benefit blacks.

Last month, the debate bubbled up when The Root, a Web journal of black politics and culture, published a provocative essay titled “President Obama: Monumental Success or Secret Setback?”

“If Obama becomes the president, every remaining, powerfully felt black grievance and every still deeply etched injustice will be cast out of the realm of polite discourse,” wrote Lawrence Bobo, a black sociologist at Harvard University, who supports Mr. Obama and was outlining in the essay the concerns of some friends and colleagues. “White folks will just stop listening.”

Bev Smith, a black talk radio host whose program is based in Pittsburgh and syndicated nationally, said some of her listeners echoed those worries.

“There’s an assumption now that we’ve made it,” Ms. Smith said. “Our concern is that we’ll get lost in the shuffle.”

The concerns have been driven in part by opponents of affirmative action who argue that race-based preferences in education and the workplace are increasingly irrelevant given the accomplishments of Mr. Obama and the growing black middle class.

Others, like Abigail Thernstrom, the vice chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, say the creation of minority voting districts should be reconsidered, too, given Mr. Obama’s success at wooing white voters in states like Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming.

Ms. Thernstrom, who is white, said black and white academics who worried about the impact of Mr. Obama’s achievement were engaging in “habits of pessimism.”

“People feel that there’s something callous, something racially indifferent in saying, ‘Wait a minute; we’ve come a long way,’ ” said Ms. Thernstrom, a longtime critic of affirmative action who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group.

“But whether he wins or loses, for a black man to become a standard-bearer for one of the two major parties, it does say something,” she said. “It says that the road we started down in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act has come to an end. We don’t need to talk about disfranchisement in the same way anymore.”

The fortunes of black Americans have certainly improved since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. The number of educated, professional blacks has grown as poverty rates have declined. About 17 percent of blacks held bachelor’s degrees in 2004, compared with 5 percent in 1970, census data shows. (About 30 percent of whites held bachelor’s degrees that year.) In 2005, college-educated black women who worked full time earned more than their white female counterparts, census data shows.

But significant gaps between blacks and whites remain. About a quarter of blacks lived below the poverty line in 2006, compared with 8 percent of whites, census data shows. The median income of blacks, $30,200, is less than two-thirds that of whites, $48,800. And studies suggest that employers often favor white job seekers over black applicants, even when their educational backgrounds and work experiences are nearly identical.

Such disparities might explain the differences in opinion that remain between blacks and whites.

In a New York Times/CBS News poll released last month, 53 percent of whites said that blacks and whites had about an equal chance of getting ahead in society. Only 30 percent of blacks agreed.

Blacks and whites were similarly divided over the state of race relations. Fifty-five percent of whites said race relations were generally good, compared with 29 percent of blacks. Nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad.

“A few of my white friends have asked me, ‘With Barack achieving all of this, will we be in a position where we can put race aside?’ ” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who is a co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s campaign in that state.

Mr. Cummings said he points them to statistics on lingering racial disparities in education, health and income. “I hope that progressive-minded people will not make a blanket conclusion that if Barack has made it, everybody can make it,” he said.

Mr. Obama has occasionally made that point himself, noting that his candidacy alone will not resolve the nation’s lingering racial inequities.

“I have never been so na├»ve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own,” Mr. Obama said in his speech on race in March.

As part of his urban policy plan, Mr. Obama promises to increase the minimum wage, expand affordable housing, provide full financing for community block grants and create a White House office of urban affairs. Some of his black supporters argue that it would be foolhardy for Mr. Obama to focus more on racial issues, particularly given that he needs to appeal to white voters who can be alienated by such talk.

“He’s running for president of the United States, not president of the Urban League,” said Jabari Asim, editor of The Crisis, the N.A.A.C.P. magazine, reiterating comments made by a fellow writer and editor. “I think most people understand that he can’t go out and push this overtly African-American agenda.”

Mr. Harrison, the Howard University sociologist, worries that such political imperatives might make it less likely that an Obama administration would be inclined to confront entrenched racial divisions.

But he still plans to savor Mr. Obama’s historic moment. He hopes that the nomination will lead to a national conversation about race relations and that the shifting political landscape might give rise to new strategies to address the legacies of America’s color line.

“It will certainly shift the conversation,” Mr. Harrison said. “It might end up being another vehicle for people to press the same points. But it might also open a new chapter of the debate.”

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