6 Nov 2008

Obama victory signals shift in US race relations

1:08 am on 6 November 2008

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, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, said his satisfaction at Mr Obama's success was conditioned by a sense of history.

Reverend 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."

Reverend Jackson put the election in the context of the movement to end racial segregation in the South in the 1950s and 1960s and 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 labours."

One surprise apparent in the earliest primaries in which parties chose their nominees was the support Mr Obama attracted among whites voters.

At the same time, black voters were integral to Mr Obama's success, swinging a number of states in his favor. And the Illinois senator 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 scepticism 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 US society, it could also alter the way they are perceived, particularly if Mr Obama's administration gains a reputation for competence.

America has moved on - Gingrich

Conservative leader Newt Gingrich said Mr 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," the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives said.

Stubborn facts, however, point towards persistent inequality that Mr Obama may struggle to tackle given the downturn facing the US economy.

Black Americans make up around 13% 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.

Large young voter turnout

Exit polls showed that large numbers of young voters turned out to vote for Mr 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.

Americans will watch Mr 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.