Obama victory opens door to new black identity

By Jesse Washington

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Shortly after leaving the voting booth, 70-year-old community activist Donald E. Robinson had a thought: "Why do I have to be listed as African-American? Why can’t I just be American?"

The answer used to be simple: because a race-obsessed society made the decision for him. But after Barack Obama’s mind-bending presidential victory, there are rumblings of change in the nature of black identity and the path to economic equality for black Americans.

Before Tuesday, black identity and community were largely rooted in the shared experience of the struggle — real or perceived — against a hostile white majority. Even as late as Election Day, many blacks still harbored deep doubts about whether whites would vote for Obama.


Obama’s overwhelming triumph cast America in a different light. There was no sign of the "Bradley Effect," when whites mislead pollsters about their intent to vote for black candidates. Nationwide, Obama collected 44 percent of the white vote, more than John Kerry, Al Gore or even Bill Clinton, exit polls show.

In Ohio, domain of the fabled working-class white swing voter, where journalists unearthed multitudes of racist quotes during the campaign, 46 percent of white voters backed Obama’s bid to become the first black president, more than the three previous Democratic candidates.

Obama did not define himself as a black candidate. So Robinson now feels free to define himself as something more than a black community activist.

"We’ve taken that next step. It’s moving toward what we call universal brotherhood and sisterhood," Robinson said after voting for Obama in his northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood. "We shouldn’t be split and have all these divisions. That’s why I say it’s a bright day."

L. Douglas Wilder, the first black person to be elected governor of Virginia, shares Robinson’s sense of American identity. "But I can tell you, when you say that, people take umbrage," Wilder said. "They believe that you are dissing them, putting blacks down. I don’t have to tell you what I am, you can look at me and see that I’m not white. So what difference does it make?"

It took Obama’s election, however, to make that idea real.

"It’s immediately transformative," Wilder said. "It immediately changes the level of discussion. This thing is bigger than we thought it was. It’s too big to get our arms around, and it grows exponentially each passing day. It sets us on a brand-new course."

Yet the past is a heavy burden to shed. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a former civil rights activist who was jailed during the protest marches of the 1960s, said that Obama’s election does move America toward a "more perfect union." But when it comes to self-definition, he believes the current state of that union leaves him no choice.


"We don’t come into this world defining ourselves," Clyburn said. "I was born into a world that had defined limits for me. I had to sit on the back of the bus, I couldn’t attend the nearby school. My wife had to walk 2 1/2 miles to school, walk past the white school to get to the school for blacks. She didn’t define that role for herself. That role was imposed upon us."

Certainly racism did not disappear after Obama’s white votes were counted. No one is claiming that black culture and pride and community are no longer valuable. Many also dismiss the idea of a "post-racial" America as long as blacks and other minorities are still disproportionately afflicted by disparities in income, education, health, incarceration and single parenthood.

But white groups that once faced discrimination, such as the Italians, Jews and Irish, have moved from the margins to the mainstream. America debated whether John F. Kennedy could become the first Catholic president; now that’s a historical footnote.

So the prospect of a black population that is more of "America" than "black America" has profound implications — especially for the civil rights establishment that continues to battle for blacks who remain at the bottom. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, acknowledges that Obama’s election does change the nature of his job, "but not in the way people might think."

The Urban League spent the last eight years trying to hold the Bush administration accountable on civil rights. Now Morial is hoping to cooperate with the government and apply his organization’s expertise to issues like poverty, education and job training — which will help rebuild the entire American economy.

Morial noted that President Reagan had a base of aggressive and vocal advocacy groups to help push his agenda through Congress. "You can march against things, and you can march in support of things," he said. "If you’re an executive trying to get things done, you need visible and vocal support."

Clyburn suggested that civil rights groups should adopt new tactics of working closely with the legislative branch, because Obama and the new Congress will be more receptive to their agenda: "We don’t need to be on the streets raising hell."

"We’ve always used a variety of tactics," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "Legislation, litigation, sometimes demonstration, and the vote. And sometimes the consumer dollar."


When Jackson was breaking barriers in his presidential runs of 1984 and ’88, it was the zenith of Reagan’s "morning in America." Jackson’s tactics were employed against a conservative establishment that used racially divisive issues such as welfare and crime to great advantage.

Now there’s a new president, a new day, and new ideas built upon the old.

"My grandmother told me when I was 5, ’Boy, if they ask you what you are, just tell them that you’re an American," said Benjamin Jealous, the 35-year-old president of the NAACP. "The reality is that our heritage, our culture, our families, our community have been extremely important to us. It’s always been our right, and in many ways what we fought for, to be seen simply as Americans."

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