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 for the residents of Newton, Mass., there's another first: It has a popularly elected black mayor and governor to celebrate along with the president. But not many have noticed.
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For Mass. City, Black Leaders Are 'Business As Usual'

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

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As the nation marks Martin Luther King Day today, it does so the first time with an African-American president in the White House. And the year 2010 brings another first. NPR's Tovia Smith joins us now to talk about that. She's in Boston. Hi, Tovia.

TOVIA SMITH: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's this first?

SMITH: Well, the first is that as of this month, Newton, Massachusetts - which is an overwhelmingly white affluent suburb just west of Boston - it is now the first U.S. city to be represented by a popularly elected African-American mayor, governor and, of course, president.

INSKEEP: And when you say popularly elected, you mean they've actually stood for election, they've been voted in, and executives at every level that people in Newton, Massachusetts look at are African-American.

SMITH: That's right. And of course there are others around the country. And to be sure, in the year 2010, just having an African-American mayor or a governor is not big news, but it is somewhat striking, as you say, to look through the eyes of a Newton resident and see African-Americans in not one, but rather every chief executive slot. And it was a bit of a wow to me personally, Steve, so we thought we'd go and check in with the trifecta, if you will, to see what they make of the milestone.

And we started with Setti Warren, shortly after he was elected mayor of Newton.

Mayor SETTI WARREN (Newton, Massachusetts): I think the day after, I started thinking about it, and realized how powerful, what an incredible statement about where our society is.

SMITH: Warren told me it was really emotional being sworn into office alongside his young daughter and his parents, who are part of a generation, of course, that was still fighting, in many cases, for the right to vote.

Mr. WARREN: You know, my father marched in the civil rights movement. Jim Crow was prevalent across the country. To go from that to having my daughter's generation have three African-Americans - mayor, governor and president -that's all she's ever going to know. You know, it's just business as usual.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WARREN: I, Setti D. Warren, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.

Unidentified Woman: Congratulations, Mr. Mayor.

Mr. WARREN: To be alive for this was just incredible. I'm awed by it. I know my father is, and my mother too.

SMITH: Warren spoke with both President Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick after his election, but no one mentioned the milestone.

Mr. WARREN: It didn't come up, as amazing as that sounds. And I think the fact that it's not an issue is even more powerful.

SMITH: And that may be the most remarkable sign of progress - that something so recently considered only a dream may now be so unremarkable. Indeed, it wasn't until we asked about it that Governor Patrick first registered the way he, the mayor and the president had made history.

Governor DEVAL PATRICK (Democrat, Massachusetts): I think you're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. PATRICK: So, a light is going off, yes.

SMITH: As it sinks it, the governor agrees the real big news is that it's not big news. He likens it to the moment he watched Barack Obama accept the Democratic nomination for president.

Gov. PATRICK: I remember Jennifer Hudson sang the national anthem.

(Soundbite of song, "Star-Spangled Banner")

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Singer): (Singing) Oh, say can you see...

Gov. PATRICK: And about halfway through the national anthem, I just totally lost it. I just started sobbing. What was funny was that my kids just did not get it. It was like, what's the big deal, dad? You know, they just didn't get how deep those feelings ran. And as I say, that may be its own sign of progress.

SMITH: President Obama, who doesn't like to make a big issue of race, declined to weigh in on the milestone. As Governor Patrick puts it, don't expect any of the trifecta to be calling for a photo op to mark the occasion.

Gov. PATRICK: 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. It's not post-racial. They are aware of differences, but they are undeterred by those differences, and that is progress.

INSKEEP: That's Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick speaking with our own Tovia Smith about news that Newton, Massachusetts elected a black mayor, meaning they now have a black mayor, black governor, black president - all at the same time.

And, Tovia, Governor Patrick said that young people are less awkward talking about this. How are young people responding to this news?

SMITH: Well, I had a very interesting conversation with a group of high school students in Newton. And what I heard about the milestone was something between a wow and a whatever.

Ms. INGRID RUTIYEA(ph) (Student, Newton High School): It wasn't, like, that big of a thing. Like, okay, that's chill. Like, move along. It's cool.

SMITH: Students like Ingrid Rutiyea are quick to note that their progressive, solidly blue suburb of Newton is hardly representative of the nation, and that even in Newton, senior Jen Diamond says Martin Luther King's dream is still not totally a reality.

Ms. JEN DIAMOND (Senior, Newton High School): I mean, I don't think you can, like, deny that there is still prejudice, like, around. You know, that's not eliminated, we're not all done.

Mr. SAM KILEY (Senior, Newton High School): I guess you could say that we're 80 percent there.

SMITH: That's senior Sam Kiley, the only African-American in the random group. First, he told me that race is something no one ever thinks about. But then just a little bit later, Kiley and the others started offering a much less rosy view of things.

Ms. KILEY: Like, in the school, for example, during lunch, it's split up; the African-Americans sit on the stairs, and then there's everybody else. And, I mean, there's obviously still something there that hasn't quite connected, you know. So, his dream, personally I feel like it will never be completely met, completely, totally.

SMITH: As students began to open up, for example, talking about still-lingering stereotypes or their belief that minorities have a better shot than whites getting into college, the conversation became more and more uneasy.

Ms. DIAMOND: It's still true that, like...I don't want to...like, right now I'm having so much trouble saying what I think is definitely true. That I, like...it's so awkward.

SMITH: That got us talking about what Governor Patrick said about kids today being unfazed by race and being able to talk about it without the awkwardness of their parents' generation. Here's Sam Kiley again.

Mr. KILEY: It's not true. Because in general, it's still a tough, touchy subject still. It can still be hard.

INSKEEP: One of the students who took on that touchy subject with our own Tovia Smith. And, Tovia, it sounds like they are still awkward, but they're willing to have the discussion.

SMITH: That's right. Race is still definitely an issue here. But as senior Jen Diamond put it to me - she says, that's okay.

Ms. DIAMOND: I don't think Martin Luther King's dream was to deny that race exists or anything like that. Like, not necessarily to be colorblind so much as to look past color and to see the person themselves. And I think, like, this election has shown that there is, like, a possibility for people to do that.

SMITH: And, Steve, one other thing I was struck by, sitting with these students, is how often in our conversation they would use humor and crack jokes. They would kind of confront this stuff head-on. One student saying to me, for example, if only I were black I'd definitely get into my top college, and everybody would laugh, you know, albeit a little nervously at times, but they all said how important it was to use humor in breaking the ice about these things.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tovia Smith has been reporting from Newton, Massachusetts, which is the first city in the United States to have, all at the same time, a popularly elected mayor, governor and president who are African-American. Tovia, thanks very much.

SMITH: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: On this Martin Luther King holiday, this is NPR News.

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