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Will Obama victory end racial-identity politics?

The Democrat's qualifications, not race, sealed his victory, African-Americans say.

By Staff writer / November 5, 2008

Newspaper pages from around the world telling of Barack Obama's election to the presidency were on display at the Newseum in Washington. Obama's victory brought elation to black communities throughout the US.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters



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.

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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.”