For Mass. City, Black Leaders Are 'Business As Usual'

As the nation marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, it does so for the first time with an African-American president in the White House. And there are other firsts: In Newton, Mass., there is a popularly elected black mayor, while the state has a popularly elected black governor.

Setti Warren

Setti Warren is the newly inaugurated mayor of Newton, Mass., an overwhelmingly white, affluent Boston suburb. Tovia Smith/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tovia Smith/NPR

"[When] I started thinking about it, I realized what an incredible statement about where our society is," says Setti Warren, the newly inaugurated mayor of the overwhelmingly white, affluent Boston suburb. He says it was extremely emotional to be sworn into office alongside his young daughter and his parents, who are part of a generation that still had to fight for the right to vote.

"You know, my father marched in the civil rights movement. Jim Crow was prevalent across the country. And to go from that to having my daughter's generation have three African-Americans [in office] — mayor, governor and president," Warren says. "I mean, that's all she's ever going to know! It's just business as usual. I'm awed by it."

Warren spoke with both President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick after he was elected, but no one mentioned the milestone.

Indeed, it wasn't until NPR asked about it that Patrick first registered how he, the mayor and the president had made history.

That may be the most remarkable sign of progress — that something that was so recently considered only a dream may now be so unremarkable. Patrick likens it to the way his kids shrugged off the news of an African-American becoming president. He says he broke down in tears when he watched Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president, but his kids were less affected.

"What was funny was that my kids just did not get it. It was like, 'What's the big deal, Dad?' " he says. "You know, they just didn't get how deep those feelings ran. And as I say, that may be its own sign of progress."

Obama, who doesn't like to make a big issue of race, declined to weigh in on the milestone. As Patrick puts it, don't expect any of the so-called trifecta to be calling for a photo opportunity to mark the occasion.

Patrick and Obama

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick looks on as President Obama speaks at a Boston fundraiser for the governor in October 2009. Gerald Herbert/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Gerald Herbert/AP Photo

"I think some of us of a certain age, we're still in that generation that is trying to figure out how to talk about this. I find that younger people, they don't get stuck in the awkwardness of this conversation," Patrick says. "They are aware of differences, but undeterred by those differences, and that is progress."

Still A Way To Go

Indeed, ask young people in Newton about the historic milestone, and you'll hear something between a "wow" and a "whatever." Many Newton North High School students were quick to note that their progressive solid blue suburb is hardly representative of the nation. And even in Newton, they said, Martin Luther King's dream is still not totally a reality.

"I don't think you can deny that there is still prejudice around," says senior Jen Diamond. "That's not eliminated, we're not all done."

Senior Sam Kiley, an African-American, initially said that race is something no one ever even thinks about. But 20 minutes later, Kiley and the others began to offer a much less rosy view of things.

"In the school, for example, during lunch, it's actually split up; the African-Americans sit on stairs, like in front of the library, and then there's everybody else," he says. "There is obviously still something there that hasn't quite connected. So, personally I feel like [Martin Luther King's dream] will never be completely met."

Kiley says Patrick may be overstating it when he says that kids today are unfazed by race and can talk about it without the awkwardness of their parents. In many instances, the kids admit they are afraid to say what they really feel — for example, their belief that African-Americans have a better shot than white kids at getting into college.

"It's still a touchy subject," Kiley says. "It can still be hard [to talk about.]"

Diamond agrees that race is still is an issue. But, she says, that's OK.

"I mean, I don't think that Martin Luther King's dream was to deny that race exists, like ... to be colorblind so much as to look past color and to see like, the person themselves," she says. "And, obviously, I think there are still divisions, but this election has shown there is a possibility for people to do that."

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