ATLANTA (Reuters) - For Americans burdened by a sense of history, something once unthinkable has happened. The United States has elected a black president.
What has changed in terms of race to enable Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s defeat of Republican John McCain and what might change as a result?
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said his satisfaction at Obama’s success was conditioned by a sense of history. Jackson witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and twice ran for president in the 1980s.
“His (Obama) winning means America’s getting better. We are more mature. We are less anxious around each other,” he said in an interview.
Jackson put the election in the context of the movement to end racial segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and win voting rights for blacks in the teeth of violent opposition.
“I know so many people white, black and Jewish who marched and were martyred. I wish that those who paid the supreme sacrifice could see the results of their labors,” he said.
One surprise apparent in the earliest primaries in which parties chose their nominees was the support Obama attracted among whites voters.
At the same time, black voters were integral to Obama’s success, swinging a number of states in his favor. And Obama went out of his way to embrace black voters and their concerns, most notably in a high-profile speech on race in March.
Those factors deal a blow to black skepticism about their role in politics and a lingering sense of disenfranchisement.
“The first thing Obama’s presidency means for black people is, at least momentarily, a sense of full citizenship,” said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political science professor at Princeton University.
Just as the election could change the way blacks perceive politics and their place in U.S. society, it could also alter the way they are perceived, particularly if Obama’s administration gains a reputation for competence.
Conservative leader Newt Gingrich said Obama’s rise reflected changes that have already taken place. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her predecessor Colin Powell proved that blacks could deal at the highest levels in government, he said.
“It begins to be accepted that young men and women of color who can certainly dream the biggest dreams .... America has moved beyond any narrowly defined sense of racism,” said the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in an interview.
Stubborn facts, however, point toward persistent inequality that Obama may struggle to tackle given the downturn facing the U.S. economy.
Black Americans make up around 13 percent of the population but earn less money and are less healthy than the general population. They are also more likely to be unemployed, less likely to own property and more likely to be convicted and jailed for crimes.
A debate rages over whether those disparities are due to prejudice, social disadvantages such as less well-funded schools in inner cities where many black Americans live, or whether African Americans should work harder to deal with their own issues.
Obama’s frequent injunctions to parents to switch off the television set, get children to do homework and take better care of their children could tip the balance in the debate.
And if his administration expands health care it could significantly redress one big disparity, said Harris-Lacewell.
But one concern for people seeking to redress inequality is that Obama’s victory could diminish their leverage when it comes to addressing those issues.
“People will say: ‘We have elected a black president. We are done with race,’” said William Jelani Cobb, author of books about contemporary black culture.
Exit polls showed that large numbers of young voters turned out to vote for Obama as president.
That support is partly a product of school integration, which began in the 1960s, though recent studies show that the process of integration is being reversed.
It is also the result of the increasing visibility of African Americans in popular culture from music to movies. Jackson argued that the presence of blacks in sports had helped transform racial attitudes.
Music mogul Russell Simmons said hip hop and hip-hop culture and fashion had also profoundly impacted youth culture, despite the controversy associated with it.
“Hip hop and hip-hop culture had so much to do with this shift in race relations. ... The doors were knocked down by hip hop. It had more to do with a shift in race relations than all the civil rights leaders,” he said.
Another fact that played little role in voting choices could yet prove important — for the next four years the country’s first family will be black.
Americans will watch Obama’s daughters, who are 10 and 7, grow up in the White House.
That could give young people of color a renewed sense of the opportunities open to them.
Editing by Jackie Frank