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Obama's rise stuns observers of U.S. race relations

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Barack Obama’s sudden ascendancy to front-runner status among Democrats vying for the White House has opened what could be a new chapter in race relations in America.

Observers of the U.S. debate over race say that however fleeting this may be, Obama’s victory in last week’s Iowa caucuses shatters an assumption about black Americans in national politics. Iowa is largely white and rural.

The Illinois senator would be the first black president and several commentators and voters said the excitement over his candidacy has led them to imagine a softening of their long-held skepticism about black-white relations in the United States.

“Obama has stepped up out of the script and we are in uncharted waters,” said William Jelani Cobb, history professor at Atlanta’s Spelman College and the author of a recent book of essays on contemporary black culture.

Obama, 46, leads Sen. Hillary Clinton, 60, in opinion polls in New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday in the state-by-state process of choosing Republican and Democratic candidates for November’s election to succeed President George W. Bush.

Cobb said Obama’s win in Iowa was striking because historically the first blacks to break into fields traditionally dominated by whites succeeded by offering continuity rather than reform.

Obama’s campaign has stood for change.

RACIAL GAP

The sharp gap between America’s white majority and blacks who make up around 13 percent of the population challenges the nation’s sense of itself as a place of boundless opportunity.

African Americans on average experience higher mortality rates than whites and lower life expectancy despite a black middle class that has grown since the civil rights movement in the 1960s. They also earn far less on average and are more likely to be arrested, charged and incarcerated.

Those disparities are most stark in inner cities and have stoked debate between civil rights leaders and others who highlight prejudice as a cause. Conservatives say blacks should take responsibility for solving their problems.

Obama’s appeal to white voters stems in part from his multicultural heritage as a child of a white American mother and a Kenyan father who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, commentators and voters said.

That and his optimistic message set him apart from other black politicians and helps him appear non-threatening, allowing many Democratic voters to feel good about his Iowa victory as a heartwarming story.

“To become that first black president, he doesn’t seem to be looking at it from that point of view. He just wants people to vote for him because he’s the right candidate,” said Francis Charfauros, a coffee shop manager in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Obama has also followed Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and other black politicians who distanced themselves when they ran for office from civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson who crusade primarily for racial justice.

“He (Obama) is not fire-and-brimstone like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. He’s an individual like the rest of us. We’re not going to a revival meeting,” said Al Bourque, a white retiree living in Portsmouth, N.H.

“I don’t even think of him as being black. I’m looking at him as an individual. He appears thoughtful and exudes a lot of confidence,” said Bourque, who supports Obama after vacillating between him and Clinton.

“RACE NEUTRALITY”

One effect of that “race neutrality” is that voters might consider him an exception, said author and commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who has written books on race and politics.

“Obama is able to elevate himself to the broader American public,” he said. “There’s always been this thing of black exceptionalism, to take and elevate some African Americans and say: ‘You are different. You are well spoken, intelligent.’”

The next major Democratic primary after New Hampshire is on January 26 in the southern state of South Carolina, where Clinton has built a strong base in the large black community, which traditionally votes for Democratic candidates.

A brutal system of racial segregation prevailed in the South until the 1960s and no black has been elected to the U.S. Senate from the region for over a century.

Some older black leaders were reluctant to embrace Obama because they viewed so-called progressive whites such as Clinton as the best avenue for black interests while younger black voters were more likely to embrace Obama, analysts said.

But he might struggle to appeal to white voters in the South and parts of the country with a higher percentage of blacks than Iowa and New Hampshire, they said.

“As you get a larger number of black people in a community then you get racial tensions and divisions and racial attitudes harden,” said Juan Williams, who has written books and made films about black history.

“Obama is giving us a brilliant demonstration of progress in race relations but to suggest that his success is proof that race is no longer an issue is naive or deceptive,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mark Egan and Fred Katayama in New Hampshire, Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati, Peter Bohan in Chicago and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix)

Editing by Howard Goller

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