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MELISSA BLOCK:

Tomorrow, the concerns of African-Americans and Latinos take center stage in an Iowa high school. All eight Democratic presidential contenders say they'll attend the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum. It's the sixth time for the forum, which takes place at North High School in Des Moines. Barack Obama got a head start on the event when he made a campaign stop there earlier this week.

NPR's David Welna was there.

DAVID WELNA: It was the very last question Obama took from a crowd far more racially diverse than you'd expect to find in Iowa. A black woman named Annette Brown told him about her move some years ago from Chicago to Des Moines.

Ms. ANNETTE BROWN: Even though we live here and we have all colors here, I have to say that hasn't been a pleasant one. And the reason for that is that those who are here to help have not helped us. And we need that.

WELNA: It was an opening for the Democrats' only black presidential contender.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): One topic that we talked about around the edges but haven't talked about explicitly is the issue of race in this country, which obviously still has an impact. And I don't think any of us can deny it.

WELNA: With that - and a reminder to the crowd of his own racially mixed heritage - Obama adlibbed a homily on the persistence of racial prejudice in America.

Sen. OBAMA: We do have a legacy of race in this country, and we see it in our daily lives. There's a reason why African-Americans are so much more likely to be incarcerated. There's a reason why Hispanic Americans are more likely to be without health care and in low-wage jobs. It has to do with history. It has to do with legacy of slavery, and Jim Crow and discrimination. And even if people aren't discriminating now, that legacy is still there.

(Soundbite of crowd talking)

Ms. BARBARA OLIVER HALL (Former Head, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Iowa): I've never heard him talk about race in this particular way.

WELNA: Barbara Oliver Hall once headed the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Iowa.

Ms. HALL: Iowa, of course, has had some discrimination issues but it has grown from those days. And in some areas, there may be still some - a legacy, as Obama said, with that issue but I think basically I have lived a good life here.

WELNA: But the charge of discrimination aired at the rally did resonate with the black South Carolina transplant on Iowa, 37-year-old Christopher McCrory. His car sports a decal identifying him as a former Marine and he recalled how it seemed to transform one white driver's perception of him.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER McCRORY (Former U.S. Marine): The gentleman looked at me real hard. And then he sees the sticker on the back of my car, so when we get to the next light, oh, he smiles and he's my friend now because we have a common belief and purpose. But we're all of different race. Before I'm just an ignorant person so that's why I can understand where she's coming from because we've seen it in (unintelligible).

WELNA: A national survey of black voters came out this week showing both Obama and Hillary Clinton with high approval ratings, though Clinton did even better than Obama. She also picked up key endorsements from some prominent South Carolina black ministers.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies did that survey. He says, though only a tiny fraction of Iowa voters are black, it still makes sense to court them.

Mr. DAVID BOSITIS (Senior Research Associate, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies): The number of people who attend the Iowa caucuses is very small. And in Iowa, if you can motivate any group in the population, even if it's 2 percent of the population, it would have a significant impact on the outcome.

WELNA: Discussion of race in Iowa and the nation will likely continue at tomorrow's Brown and Black forum.

David Welna, NPR News.

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