AS HE sat in a television studio in Alabama on election night, Artur Davis saw a white cameraman with tears in his eyes. It was while Barack Obama was giving his victory speech in Chicago. Of course it was an emotional moment, says Mr Davis, a young black congressman. But he was still surprised to see a cameraman cry, because “they’re a pretty cynical lot.”
“Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job” was how the Onion, a satirical newspaper, reported Mr Obama’s triumph. But most Americans are still overjoyed to see such conspicuous evidence that their country really is a place where anyone with talent and drive can make it. And blacks are ecstatic. Some 80% of them tell pollsters that Mr Obama’s victory is “a dream come true”, while a whopping 96% think it will improve race relations.
The election provided solid evidence that race matters less in America than pessimists suppose. Mr Obama won a bigger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and more of the white vote than either John Kerry or Al Gore. Outside the South, he beat Mr Kerry’s share of the white vote in every state except New Mexico and Arizona (John McCain’s home state). Even among southern whites, Mr Obama did well. He scored worse than Mr Kerry in only five states: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia.
But what difference will a black president make for black Americans? “He’s not a magician or a messiah,” says Marc Morial of the National Urban League, a civil-rights group. He will, however, be a role model. For one thing, “he finished school,” says Mr Morial. For another, he is a good father. And when black parents tell their children that if they work hard they may grow up to be president, those children will no longer find the notion absurd.
Some pundits think the role of role-models is exaggerated. Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank, doubts that having a black man in the White House will have much effect on the proportion of African-Americans who are born out of wedlock (currently more than two-thirds) or wind up in jail (black men are nearly seven times more likely than whites to be locked up).
Maybe so. But it is already affecting the way black Americans are portrayed in the news. Not long ago, when television producers wanted a talking head to represent black America, they would call up Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, who would always say the same thing about every problem—that white racism was to blame. Now the spotlight is falling on black leaders who have led more than just protest marches. Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, is a close friend of Mr Obama’s. Mr Davis, who first met Mr Obama at Harvard, plans to be the first black governor of Alabama, of all places. Valerie Jarrett, one of Mr Obama’s closest advisers (who is also black), boasts that her boss will make public service cool, thereby attracting the best talent into government.
Mr Obama’s early choices for important jobs include two dynamic African-Americans: Eric Holder as attorney-general and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. Apart from a flap over Mr Holder’s role in advising Bill Clinton to pardon a dodgy financier, neither has attracted much attention. Americans have grown used to seeing blacks in top jobs.
Mr Obama is always respectful towards the older generation of civil-rights leaders. He likens them to Moses, who led his people to the edge of the promised land. It is now up to younger leaders, he says, to complete the journey. Some of his elders are unwilling to be shoved aside. In July, unaware that his microphone was turned on, Mr Jackson said he would like to cut off Mr Obama’s testicles (Actually he said balls, Ed). Mr Obama had suggested that black fathers should not abandon their children. Mr Jackson deemed this “talking down to black people”.
Advocates of colour-blind government think Mr Obama’s victory helps their case. If America can elect a black president, racism must be less of an obstacle to black progress than previously thought. The time for racial preferences, they argue, must surely be past. Voters in Nebraska agree. On November 4th it became the fourth state in 12 years to ban official discrimination in favour of “under-represented” minorities in hiring, contracting or public education.
A study by Richard Sander of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that when black students are admitted to law school with lower test scores than whites or Asians, those black students are less likely to cope. More drop out, and fewer pass the bar exam than would have done under race-neutral admissions policies. But many universities are convinced that racial preferences (“affirmative action”) are necessary to diversify the intake, both racially and sociologically.
Mr Obama’s views are hard to pin down. He has suggested that affluent blacks such as his own daughters should not get special treatment when applying to college, and that poor whites sometimes should. But he also says he supports affirmative action, his website includes no plans to scale it back and his allies would howl if he did. “I think probably in his heart of hearts he knows better, but I’d be shocked if [Mr Obama] does away with affirmative action,” says Mr Steele.
Mr Obama’s black supporters hope he will make good on promises to root out racism in the criminal-justice system and the workplace by enforcing existing laws more vigorously. Many also seek “environmental justice”, which means less pollution near black areas (more than half of those living within two miles of a toxic waste dump are minorities). And everyone expects a push to improve the relatively poor health of black Americans, who die, on average, five years younger than whites. Reforming health in general will have a marked effect on blacks, because they tend to get the worst care.
But the new president’s most urgent task will be to grapple with the economic crisis. If he succeeds, Americans of all hues will cheer.
from The Economist