ATLANTA (Reuters) - The election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president should help revive America’s image abroad as a land of opportunity for all.
But some analysts fear Obama’s win could actually undermine efforts to tackle inequality between blacks and whites in a country where racial segregation in the south prevented blacks from voting as recently as the 1960s.
More than 55 million people voted for Obama, a U.S. senator whose father was Kenyan and whose white mother was from Kansas, and he won a majority in a slew of groups and demographic categories to deal a big defeat to Republican John McCain.
Obama’s strength among young voters of all races in a country in which the proportion of young and nonwhite voters is increasing appeared to suggest that race as a factor in U.S. politics could gradually evaporate.
“His (Obama’s) election demonstrates America’s extraordinary capacity to renew itself and adapt to a changing world,” said former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
But several commentators said the election result will do nothing to challenge racial inequity.
“There is an acceptance among wide segments of the population that a qualified African American (Obama) can be accepted in the highest office,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of a recent book on race and presidential politics.
“But that does not magically make the problems go away for the average person of color. Nothing has changed and for many the negative stereotypes are still very much there,” Hutchinson said.
Chuck D, regarded by many as the godfather of politically-conscious rap music, said Obama’s election could radically change the debate about race in the United States but in some ways could be unhealthy.
“People will say: ‘You guys have got a black president so it’s cool. It’s straight.’ But it does not erase the discussion (about race) that you need to have,” said Chuck D, the main force behind the rap group Public Enemy.
In an interview, he warned against the election of Obama being “a weapon of mass distraction” from an attempt to tackle problems facing African Americans.
Experts differ over the cause of disparities between the majority whites and black Americans, who represent around 13 percent of the country’s population of 300 million.
On average African Americans earn less, are more likely to be unemployed and have higher rates of infant mortality and a lower life expectancy. They are more likely to be arrested and jailed and serve longer sentences than other racial groups.
A black middle class has flourished in the United States since the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s ended a brutal system of racial segregation in the south and led to the passage of laws that enabled all African Americans to vote.
But many middle class blacks say that, despite professional and financial success, race remains a significant fact of life, still woven into social and professional interactions.
The election itself does not eliminate those disparities but it would alter how they are viewed and that could make a difference, said Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker.
“An Obama presidency does not herald the end of racism in America. Obama isn’t ‘post-racial.’ He isn’t the messiah whose coming ends bigotry and inequality for all time,” said Tucker, who writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
“He’ll just be the president,” she said.
At the same time, Obama’s election could alter the way African Americans view themselves.
“I don’t know that this election changes any (social problems) right away,” said Wendell Roberts, an attorney based in Virginia.
“But one thing it does change is a state of mind .... African Americans have been citizens for ... (generations ) but there is a real sense now that all things are possible,” said Roberts.
Editing by Jim Loney and David Storey