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Have We Overcome?

What Barack Obama's election says—and doesn't say—about racial progress in America

By Rachel L. Swarns in Washington, D.C.

Ellen Yiadom describes her joy at Barack Obama's election-night victory as "the greatest feeling in the world, like winning a million dollars."

But that elation hasn't stopped the 25-year-old University of Virginia law school student from worrying about a possible backlash.

"There's so much that needs to be done," Yiadom says. "Yes, there's a black President, but 50 percent of black men don't graduate from high school. How do you reconcile those two things?"

In his quest for the White House, Barack Obama received overwhelming support from black voters—more than 95 percent of whom cast their ballots for him. But despite that support, some blacks worry that Obama's historic achievements might not be all good news for the civil rights struggle.

They fear that growing numbers of white voters and policy makers will decide that eradicating racial discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity have largely been done. And it might become harder to rally support for policies like affirmative action that were intended to combat discrimination, inequities, and urban poverty.

"I worry that there is a segment of the population that might be harder to reach, average citizens who will say: 'Come on. We [are going to] have a black President, so we must be over it,' " says Roderick J. Harrison, a sociologist at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"That is the danger, that we declare victory," says Harrison, who fears that poor blacks will increasingly be blamed for their troubles. "Historic as this moment is, it does not signify a major victory in the ongoing, daily battle."

Such concerns have been percolating for months, on black talk-radio shows and blogs, in dinner conversations, academic meetings, and e-mail messages crisscrossing the country.

Others dismiss the idea that Obama's success might undermine support for race-based policies. They applaud Obama's emphasis on solutions to broad economic problems like troubled schools, unemployment, and inadequate health insurance. Addressing these problems, which affect all Americans, would certainly benefit blacks.

Juan Williams, a black National Public Radio correspondent who has written extensively about race, believes Obama's election is the end of an era in black politics.

"The focus of discussion now is how the child of even the most oppressed of racial minorities can maximize his or her strengths and overcome negative stereotypes through achievement," Williams wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "The onus now falls on individuals to take advantage of opportunities."

Affirmative Action

Some opponents of affirmative action argue that race-based preferences in education and the workplace are increasingly irrelevant given the accomplishments of Obama and the growing black middle class.

Abigail Thernstrom, a critic of affirmative action at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research group, says the creation of minority voting districts should be reconsidered too, given Obama's success at wooing white voters. Thernstrom, who is white, says, "We don't need to talk about disfranchisement in the same way anymore."

The fortunes of black Americans have certainly improved since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The number of educated, professional blacks has grown as poverty rates have declined. About 17 percent of blacks held bachelor's degrees in 2007, compared with 5 percent in 1970 (when about 30 percent of whites held bachelor's degrees), census data show. In fact, college-educated black women who worked full-time earned more than their white female counterparts, according to recent census data.

But significant gaps between blacks and whites remain. Census data show that about a quarter of blacks live below the poverty line, compared with 8 percent of whites and about 12 percent of the population as a whole. The median income of blacks, $33,900, is about two thirds that of the general population, $50,200. And studies suggest that employers often favor white job seekers over black applicants, even when their educational backgrounds and work experiences are nearly identical.

"I just hope that people still remember the statistics, and that there's still a lot to do," says Kristina Hamilton, 21, a senior at the University of Virginia. "We can't be complacent now."

Perception Gap

Such disparities might explain the differing perspectives of blacks and whites that is evident in opinion polls.

In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 53 percent of whites said that blacks and whites have about an equal chance of getting ahead in society; 30 percent of blacks agreed with that statement. Blacks and whites were similarly divided on race relations. Fifty-five percent of whites said race relations were generally good, compared with 29 percent of blacks. Nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad.

"A few of my white friends have asked me, 'With Barack achieving all of this, will we be in a position where we can put race aside?'" says Congressman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.

Cummings says he points them to statistics on lingering racial disparities in education, health, and income. "I hope that progressive-minded people will not make a blanket conclusion that if Barack has made it, everybody can make it," he says.

Obama himself made that point the first time he made history—in 1990, as a Harvard Law School student, when he became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

"It's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is OK for blacks," he told The New York Times at the time. "You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance.''

'Catalyst For Change'

While many in the black community believe there's still a lot of work to be done, that doesn't lessen their sense of Obama's historic achievement.

Lauren McGlory, a senior at the University of Virginia, is the president of the Black Student Alliance. She says she still experiences racism, and Obama's election doesn't change that. But she's been thinking recently about all the black parents telling their children they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, and about how that message suddenly has a concrete example in the face of Barack Obama.

"It is a great thing that Obama did win," McGlory says. "I'm not trying to downplay that. I think he's going to serve as a catalyst for change."

Related article: "The House That Slaves Built" (January 12, 2009)