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For blacks, a hidden cost of Obama's win?

His race may hamper his ability to respond to needs of African-Americans, some say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2009

President Obama greeted audience members at a town-hall meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., in February. He enjoys highly favorable ratings, particularly among African-Americans.

Charles Dharapak/AP/FILE


New York

One of President Obama’s favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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As America celebrates its independence this month, the first African-American president stands as a testament to his faith in that statement and also to his own pragmatic political skills. In a nation where race has long been a divisive issue, Mr. Obama tapped a yearning for change with racially neutral language that transcended distrust and helped unite the country to elect its first black president.

At the same time, a growing number of African-American scholars are questioning the cost of that victory.

These scholars recognize that Obama still enjoys extraordinarily high approval ratings among African-Americans. An April New York Times poll found the percentage of African-Americans with an unfavorable opinion of him was too small to measure. Scholars also acknowledge the symbolic importance of a black American family living in the White House; every image of the calm, intelligent president and his apparently happy family counters myriad negative stereotypes.

But there is some concern that in Obama’s efforts to transcend race and unite the country, the African-American community could inadvertently lose political clout in determining crucial social-policy issues – from education to healthcare – vital to its well-being.

“What was the price of Obama’s election? In part, it was that we can no longer talk about race explicitly around national policy issues, or at least [Obama] can’t, without being accused of playing identity politics,” says Eddie Glaude, professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. “So the question is then: How do African-American communities engage issues in light of their particular experiences without being accused of pushing a racial agenda?”

An awkward dance

To date, it has been an awkward dance. Some African-Americans have faced a backlash for criticizing Obama. In April 2008, Tavis Smiley, a leading black commentator, abruptly left a popular morning show on Black Entertainment Television after he criticized candidate Obama. At the time, host Tom Joyner told listeners that Mr. Smiley couldn’t take “the hate” coming from listeners. Smiley, who did not return requests for a comment, later cited fatigue as a reason.