Obama's Win Marks New Chapter In Black History

Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines, says Barack Obama's victory shows the conversation on race can now be had more "as equal partners." Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, says Obama has benefited from the path set by the likes of Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In yesterday's election, a new chapter of African-American history was written. Hearing the president-elect speak, you could wonder if he was speaking of a party or of a people, of a legislative agenda or of a march toward racial equality.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we, as a people, will get there.

SIEGEL: The election of an African-American has a special resonance that can cross party lines. Today, at the State Department, before spokesman Sean McCormack's briefing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise appearance.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (Department of State): I'm getting ready to leave for the Middle East, but I did not want this morning to pass without taking note of the extraordinary election last night. This was an exercise in American democracy of which Americans across the political spectrum are justifiably proud.

SIEGEL: A few months ago, when Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, we heard from historian Mary Frances Berry and from Bryan Monroe, the editorial director of Ebony and Jet Magazines, and we've invited them both back. Welcome back.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Department of History, University of Pennsylvania): Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: Dr. Berry, first, did you find yourself at all, either last night or in recent days, fighting disbelief, thinking that somehow, white voters didn't have it in them to elect a black chief executive?

Dr. BERRY: No. I thought it would happen. Years ago, I wouldn't have thought it would happen, but for the last year, I thought that it could happen, and I've simply been waiting for it to happen. And even when people talked about the Bradley Effect and the Wilder Effect and all these different effects, I thought, times have changed.

He's a different sort of person. He's not an angry black man. He's got every credential, and he has a skillful campaign operation, and it's, after the Bush presidency, who has those low approval ratings. So, there's no reason in the world why he shouldn't win this thing, and I was simply waiting for him to win it.

SIEGEL: Bryan Monroe, are you similarly unsurprised in the end?

Mr. BRYAN MONROE (Editorial Director, Ebony and Jet Magazine): I think I'm in - much of black America had both our fingers crossed, but more importantly, we were holding our breath. I remember standing in Iowa the night he clinched the Iowa caucus and almost not wanting to believe that this, indeed, could happen, but knowing that somewhere, somehow, it could be taken away from us. Now, knowing that we can excel.

SIEGEL: Does it change things? Mary Frances Berry, does it change things, or does it confirm changes that have already happened in American life?

Dr. BERRY: Well, it confirms changes, and the credit goes to a lot of things in the popular culture. Tiger Woods, acceptable. Oprah Winfrey, acceptable. Condoleezza Rice herself, acceptable. Let's give the conservative Republicans a little credit. Clarence Thomas, not like Thurgood Marshall, but still a black guy with credentials.

Black people doing all sorts of things in American life and young people seeing that and understanding it, and the world has changed. And so, Obama came in and benefited from all that. It reflects the change, but it also says that there is a possibility for more change.

Mr. MONROE: You know, we still have a long, long ways to go when it comes to race and the conversation around prejudice and inequality in this country. But now, we can have it as more of equal partners.

SIEGEL: Mary Frances Berry said something about Barack Obama, not only was he credentialed, but he was not angry. This is not an angry black man, and of the list that she just went through, I would only count, perhaps, Justice Thomas as the one I associate with any kind...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Of anger in that group, based on what he's written and what he said.

Dr. BERRY: OK. All right.

Mr. MONROE: Well, in fact, Obama did the other side of the coin, in which he defined cool. We had him on cover of Ebony Magazine as one of the 25 coolest brothers of all time, and he showed that coolness in the face of pressure, of stress, of the most intense political campaign I've ever covered.

SIEGEL: It's occurred to me that this is a president-elect for whom, probably, high schools will someday be named and perhaps someday streets will be renamed. Does Barack Obama, by virtue of making this historic breakthrough, does he bear some special responsibility to African-Americans?

Dr. BERRY: Well, I think he does, even if he does not say so or acknowledges it. He knows that he does, and he knows that he is seen as a symbol. But I don't expect him to have policies or programs that are specifically targeted on African-Americans. That's not the way he ran his campaign, and I don't think that's the way that he will govern.

Mr. MONROE: Watching the four of them up on stage with his two daughters, that was a nuclear African-American family. For him and his family to represent that for America is really, really powerful.

SIEGEL: Bryan Monroe, editorial director of Ebony and Jet Magazines, and Professor Mary Frances Berry of the University of Pennsylvania, former chair of the Civil Rights Commission, thanks to both of you for talking with us.

Dr. BERRY: Thank you very much.

Mr. MONROE: Thank you very much.

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