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Obama's Victory Could Signal End of Racial-Identity Politics

Obama's Victory Could Signal End of Racial-Identity Politics
Supporters Say Obama's Qualifications Led Him to the White House, Not His Race
By Peter Grier |

Like Barack Obama, Tom Muriuki is half Kenyan and half white. The same student program brought both men's fathers to North America. There are only about 600 first-generation biracial Kenyans in the country. Yet despite this personal connection, Mr. Muriuki, an Oakland, Calif., civil servant, emphasizes the political over the racial when talking about President-elect Obama's historic victory.

The Bush administration made so many mistakes that the nation was desperate for change, said Muriuki. Obama was sailing with the tides of history. That he was African-American didn't matter, one way or another.

"He could have been blue, green, yellow. People are just suffering in America," said Muriuki.

One man, one election, can't wipe away the legacy of racism in the United States. But Obama's rise has brought joy to black communities across the nation. To his supporters, it offered evidence that it is possible for a national leader to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character – as the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it.

The effect of his presidency on US racial attitudes will surely be the subject of thousands of articles over the next four years. For today, the rough evidence shows that race may have boosted Obama on Election Day. His rise may mean the end of an old style of racial-identity politics.

"The politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are not going to work anymore," said Tatishe Nteta, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

For many African-Americans, Nov. 4 began with nervous anticipation and ended with celebration.

At the 203-year-old People's Baptist Church in Boston, a group of more than 30 stayed up late to watch election returns together. When CNN called the election for Obama, the room burst into applause and shifted onto its feet. One woman silently dabbed at her eyes. Vernon Truell, who joined the church in 1963 after leaving his boyhood home of Savannah, Ga., snapped pictures with his cellphone. He raised both hands and grinned, speaking in a loud voice. "We have a black president!"

Mr. Truell said he was disappointed that Obama did not run stronger in the South. But like the rest of the group, he carried on a warm but subdued celebration. "I wish Martin Luther King could be alive to see this happen," he said. "I pray it will be a positive thing in the lives of everyone."

The Rev. Wesley Roberts said that for all its significance to American blacks, Obama's victory was particularly meaningful for the way it transcended race, stepping beyond the necessarily more narrow vision of the civil rights movement leaders and for the Christian values it brought to the fore.

"We can say we knew where we were when history was made," he said as he bade the group good night. "Right here in church."

According to exit polls, Obama showed that an African-American candidate can appeal to black voters without losing large numbers of whites. Obama took some 95 percent of the black vote. At the same time, he won 41 percent of white men – higher than the last five Democratic presidential nominees. He won nearly half of white independents.

Exit polls showed that, overall, any racial backlash was overwhelmed by voters who said that they punched their ticket for Obama precisely because of the historical nature of his candidacy.

"People were making a statement," said Dr. Nteta of the University of Massachusetts.

African-American politicians such as Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker have shown it is possible to win office with a colorblind campaign. Obama has now shown that works on the national level, too, Nteta says. "The political legacy of Obama is going to be one of more minority candidates taking the same approach."

On Chicago's South Side, Kent Dowden purchased fast food at a corner hot-dog stand for his family early Wednesday morning after a tense night watching election results.

"We preach to kids, 'Go to school and doors will open for you‚' and now we can actually show that it's true," he said. "It's a beautiful thing."

He said Obama didn't win because of his race. "An African-American on a Republican ticket wouldn't have won," he said. Obama "was the most qualified – bottom line."

Married couple Linda Brothers and L'Roy Perryman were exhausted by 2 a.m. Wednesday after celebrating late into the night with friends.

For Mr. Perryman, the Obama win was historic. "I'm [originally] from Mississippi. I remember when blacks couldn't vote," he said.

Ms. Brothers said she hopes the victory will somehow rectify daily life in Englewood, historically one of the most troubled neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side. "It might make young people here be what they want to be," she said. Obama "made it."

In Oakland, many blacks said they admire Obama for varying reasons, including his discipline, family life, orientation toward consensus, and his intelligence.

"What was really impressive for me was that he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review, which led me to believe that he can form a coalition between liberals and conservatives to achieve an effective, positive agenda," said Torrence Williams, a civil servant living in Oakland.

Local high school student Cedric Wilson also mentioned Obama's leadership at the law review – which is not the usual stat for a 15-year-old to know about a personal hero.

"He sets a good example," Cedric said of Obama. "When parents ask you what you want to be when you grow up, nobody really says president, because nobody has been president who is African-American or Latino. I don't want to be president, not me. But it gives other people hope, it inspires people."

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