Obama inauguration turns page in race relations

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Anyone looking for evidence of the change represented by the United States electing an African-American as president could start with the White House itself. It was built 200 years ago using black slave labor.

Roderick Beechum holds a sign while he sings in front the US congress where Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in Washington, January 17, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Tuesday’s inauguration of Barack Obama marks a feel-good moment for the country. Many hope it is a sign that America’s travails over race, older than the country itself, are being resolved.

Outgoing President George W. Bush was quick to make the point in his farewell address, saying that Obama’s story -- his black father was from Kenya, his white mother from Kansas -- represents “the enduring promise of our land.”

For black Americans, the moment is particularly poignant.

“When Barack raises his hand, every black person in the nation should raise their hand because there’s a new sense of pride that we have in being an American that we’ve never had before,” said Lawrence Carter, dean of the Martin Luther King International Chapel at Atlanta’s Morehouse College.

The African-American journey from slavery to freedom, through segregation and lynching to civil rights and the vote, some political power and finally the presidency is told as a triumph of hope over adversity.

African slaves first came to America in 1619 and nearly 200 years later their descendants, still enslaved, helped construct two of the nation’s most treasured buildings, the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

In some respects, Obama’s heritage places him outside the mainstream of African-American experience. His father came to the United States as a foreign student and Obama’s understanding of his own racial identity evolved through his youth.

But that does not stop black Americans -- who make up about 13 percent of the population -- from viewing him as a vehicle for their own hopes.

Obama himself has not shied away from the subject of race, but he did not make it central to his campaign.

In a major speech last March at a time when race threatened to swamp his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama called the subject an aspect of American history and life that “we’ve never really worked through.”

“It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. But I have asserted a firm conviction -- a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people -- that working together can move beyond some of our racial wounds,” he said.


Pride and symbolism aside, many wonder what difference Obama’s presidency will make when it comes to race.

Obama could redress some of the glaring inequalities that exist between America’s black minority and the overall population through reforms such as universal healthcare. He could also ease suspicion and misunderstanding between blacks and whites.

Yet he faces political risks in pursuing either goal, according to politicians, civil rights leaders and commentators who spoke in a series of interviews.

Evidence of racial inequality abounds in the United States. It has generated a library of academic work and an army of social workers struggling to understand and overcome it.

To cite an example, the median income for a white family is $64,427. For a black family it is more than one-third lower at $40,143, according to 2007 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Obama and, after eight years of Bush’s Republican administration, many say they want disparities in health, income, criminal justice and education addressed.

Civil rights leader Al Sharpton said that failure to address those issues would have devastating consequences.

“The worst thing that can happen is that we get four years down the road and we have not approached closing the race gap and America says: ‘We have had an African-American president and ... the issues of race and disparity were not ... seriously dealt with,’” said Sharpton.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen because I think the president’s heart is there and those of us who are still on the field (as civil rights leaders) would not allow it to happen,” Sharpton said.

But if Obama follows the agenda of this passionate constituency, he could alienate some centrist whites who voted for him.

Already, 73 percent of voters say black Americans will gain in influence under Obama, according to a poll this month by the Pew Research Council.

A disproportionate number of black Americans lack health insurance, and universal healthcare is a reform that, if enacted, would help African Americans more than almost anything else, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, professor of politics at Princeton University.

But she and others acknowledged that Obama’s agenda would be limited by the most severe recession that the country has seen in decades -- a shattering economic downturn that will be first among the new president’s challenges.

U.S. congressman Artur Davis, a black Alabama Democrat and Obama supporter, said he hoped Obama would govern from the center and resist pressure from any one group, arguing the main expectation of black Americans for Obama was a display of competent leadership.

“He has not been elected to be a black leader. He’s been elected to be president of the United States,” Davis said.

Editing by Eric Beech