The Monitor's View

Will Obama focus on race issues?

He did not run from race, but he did not run on it. That's a balance right that's for the times.

By

The great paradox in the election of America's first black president is that Barack Obama broke a historic racial barrier without campaigning on a black agenda. This raises the question: Will he now promote government programs specifically for African-Americans?

Or should he just be who he is, and attempt to fulfill his promises broadly to the less well off?

Who he is, alone, can serve as a powerful role model for blacks, other minorities, indeed all Americans. Mr. Obama enters the White House with a strong and intact family headed by highly educated parents that shows it's possible to throw off two great weights (broken families and poor education) that pin down so many African-Americans.

Blacks will see this example of "victoryhood" over "victimhood" as a real-life inspirational story playing out before them. And so will whites. Think of how far that can go in further eroding stereotypes.

Still, many blacks may expect Obama to focus on their communities in addressing social and economic ills. They will count how many African-Americans he names to his cabinet and expect him to take up a "black agenda" – the high incarceration rate of young black men, for instance.

At the same time, Obama could face pressure to do away with race-based policies. Four states have passed ballot measures banning racial preferences in government hiring and public education. And with whites willing to elect a black president, some experts now question the need for racially drawn voting districts that protect against discrimination.

A clue on how to handle the policy part can be found in Obama's remarkable March speech on race. He noted that earlier generations of Americans struggled to narrow the gap between the Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment and "the reality of their time."

The reality of our time is that racism still lives – as seen in exit polls showing whites in some, mostly Southern, counties that had voted for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 deserting Obama.

But the much bigger reality is that racism wasn't vibrant enough to stop Obama's election. Our times include a new generation that's more neutral toward race and a population that's more ethnically diverse. A black middle class has climbed the steps laid by the sacrifices of civil-rights workers – it has seized on opportunity the way Obama did.

Though many blacks and some whites did vote for Obama because of his race, traditional black "identity politics" of yesterday have little traction today, or it would be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton heading to the Oval Office. Obama launched on a unity message, one that said, "Your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams," as he put it in that speech on race.

Interestingly, Mr. Jackson seems to be coming around to this view. "The core agenda of African-Americans is no different from that of workers across lines of race," he wrote this week. Taken to its conclusion, that means that sentencing reform and prisoner rehabilitation benefit not just blacks, but society as a whole. Better urban schools help not just blacks, but Latinos (and a more competitive US).

In his campaign, Obama did not run from race, but he did not run on it. His more universal approach seems the right one for this time. Certainly voters thought so.

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