Roundtable: Obama's Rise Affecting Race Relations? Barack Obama is within a whisper of becoming the nation's first black president. But according to a recent poll, "many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged." NPR's Tony Cox speaks with three contributors to the online magazine, Jack White, William Jelani Cobb, and Marjorie Valbrun.
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Roundtable: Obama's Rise Affecting Race Relations?

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Roundtable: Obama's Rise Affecting Race Relations?

Roundtable: Obama's Rise Affecting Race Relations?

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes, I'm Tony Cox.

(Soundbite of applause)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): America, this is our moment, this is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past, our time to bring new...

COX: That was Barack Obama speaking on the eve of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination last month, and along with it the potential to become America's first black president. But Obama's rise, though historic, has not yet brought about a sea change in race relations in this country, at least not according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll. It found blacks and whites holding very different views on race and on Senator Obama's candidacy. What do you think?

You can share your thoughts at our blog, But for now, I'm joined by three contributors to the online magazine, Jack White is a former columnist for Time magazine, William Jelani Cobb is a writer, blogger and associate professor of history at Spelman College, and Marjorie Valbrun is an award-winning reporter who teaches journalism at Howard University. Thanks to each of you for joining us for this very special Roundtable.

Ms. MARJORIE VALBRUN (Journalism Teacher, Howard University): Hello.

Mr. JACK WHITE (Former Columnist, Time Magazine): Thank you for having me.

Mr. WILLIAM JELANI COBB (Writer, Blogger; Associate Professor, Spelman College): My pleasure.

COX: So let's begin with the poll. Nearly 60 percent of blacks polled said race relations were generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Both groups agreed that America's ready to elect a black president, but black Democrats were 24 points more likely than white Democrats to have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama. In its analysis, the New York Times writes, "The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics, many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged."

So Jelani, what do you make of those findings, and of the poll's premise?

Mr. COBB: Well, one of the things that I think that's important to recognize is that I don't think very many people see Senator Obama's campaign, or even a possible Obama presidency, as a magic bullet as somehow being an antidote for the past 200 years of racial history in this country. And beyond that, I want to say that this is an opinion poll, but what we're actually talking about is people's lived experiences. So if we were to talk about the actual data on employment, on discrimination, on the criminal justice system, or on access to healthcare and all these other issues, we would see a gap that justified the perspective that we see African-Americans reporting in this poll.

COX: Well Marjorie, he in fact has partly answered the question I was going to put to you, which is this, to explain to our listeners how some black people could on the one hand take pride in Obama's success thus far, and yet still feel like the same old racial barriers exist in their daily lives.

Ms. VALBRUN: Because of their perceptions, like he was just saying, you know, peoples experiences I think shape their opinions more than anything else. And, you know, having one person, you know, elected president, there's no way it can change, you know, how blacks perceive - how they perceive their standing in this country and how they are perceived. And I think that that's this fear that some black people have that now Americans say, oh, there is no race problem in this country, we've overcome every kind of racial challenge we have because we have this black man in office.

And it's the same, you know, when people point to blacks in Hollywood, blacks in films, like on Wall Street, that, oh well, you know, you can name a few names and that means that everything is OK. And so I think that is the big reason that Barack is not going to be considered the panacea for all of the country's racial problems.

COX: Well, you know Jack, a certain generation of black folks are still very much bewildered, quite frankly, about how all this even happened, how a 46-year-old black junior senator is now in contention to lead the free world seems to run counter to hundreds of years of our history.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I'm one of the people who never thought they would live to see this day come. And I wrote a piece on TheRoot a few weeks ago when he locked up the nomination saying that I'd come outside to see whether pig were flying and fish were whistling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Because it was such a like, unexpected thing. And I think it - the unexpected arrival of Obama at this very, very significant point in his race toward the White House has unsettled a lot of people who were not really ready for the idea that a black might actually be elected president of the United States and thus become the most powerful person in the world.

I think that's a - that's black people, white people, American's of all stripes. And I think some of the fear that people have that his election might actually lead to some sort of a setback in the pursuit of black interest stems from this uncertainty about what it means to have one of our own as the most powerful man in the world.

COX: I want to follow that point - I want to follow that point up with you Jack, but before I do I want to play this clip from - because in today's conversation, we have been soliciting questions on our blog, and we have one here from listener Travis Brown (ph) in Boston, Massachusetts.

Mr. TRAVIS BROWN (Listener, Boston, Massachusetts): If Barack Obama were to win the presidency, would it give mainstream America license to say racism no longer exists? And to what other issue could blacks attribute gaps in achievement, if not institutionalized racism?

COX: Now, Marjorie, I know you want to get in on this, but Jack, I want to ask you first, with Obama in the White House will people be able to claim that racism no longer exists?

Mr. WHITE: Well, then of course they will claim that because they claim that in presence of achievements far short of somebody getting elected - a black person being elected to the White House.

I think what we really need to look at is several different things. Racism and discrimination obviously are not going to disappear, but what Obama's election would signal is that though these forces - these things remain powerful forces inhibiting blacks from fulfilling their ambitions, they are not insurmountable.

So you'll have a much more - you'll have a much more nuanced, a much more complicated sort of, a different of conversation going on about the effects of racism be - at this point because you'd actually be able to tell young black children, and mean it, you too can grow up to be president of the United States, and it won't just be an empty platitude.

COX: Marjorie, you wanted to say something?

Ms. VALBRUN: Oh yeah, I wanted to go back to where we were talking about how this happened, and also, is there a danger in saying that, you know, this means that there is - racism doesn't exist.

The reason that Obama has been able to go so far and so fast, I think, is because that white voters think of him as a very palatable candidate. As somebody who doesn't - I'm sure he still drives fear in some people, but he's not as scary as say, you know, somebody who comes with a strong civil rights agenda, like an Al Sharpton or a Jesse Jackson.

And I think that they feel that, you know, well, you know, he's different. He went to Ivy League schools, he's bi-racial - and let's not underplay that, that plays a big part in it that makes him again, more palatable, more acceptable. He doesn't have the baggage they think of the, you know, of having been raised in - a product of the civil rights movement, he's more of a beneficiary of that movement.

And so I think for all those reasons, he has become much more easy to accept by white voters. And as a result, they can point to him and say this means that racism, you know, is no longer a problem in this country.

COX: Well, let's...

Ms. VALBRUN: Clearly it is, when we see this - the result of this poll, and we see that he still hasn't closed the deal with a lot of white voters.

COX: And he may not close the deal, in fact, Jelani. Obama is trending slightly ahead of John McCain in most national polls right now. Although one of the latest ones indicates that in some of the battleground states in the Midwest, Minnesota being one of them, that McCain is coming up fast on the back end. So if Obama does lose on election day, Jelani, what will that do to the collective psyche of black folks?

Mr. COBB: Well, I think that it will be a tremendous disappointment. But one of the things about this campaign is that we can't be - we can't Monday-morning-quarterback at this point. I think we're all trying to figure out how this happened, and somehow or another, I find the explanations for it to be somewhat lacking.

But I will point up to one other factor in this as well. And that is in New York City, David Dinkins, when he was elected mayor - and as we all know, New York is an overwhelmingly Democratic city - he should have blown Rudy Giuliani out of the water in 1989, and he actually won by a very slim margin. And so we may be seeing that same dynamic, in that large numbers of white Democrats in New York switched over and voted Republican. He didn't get the amount of Republican - excuse me, Democratic support that he should have, given the size of the population there. And so that may also explain part of what we're seeing with Senator Obama, as well as some lingering animus from the really hardcore Hillary Clinton supporters.

COX: Do you think, Jack White, that a loss by Obama would be - well, what do you think it would be?

Mr. WHITE: I think it would be - I think it would be a huge disappointment to - not only to African-Americans, but also to the large number of young people who have been inspired to come into the political process by Obama's lofty rhetoric and, frankly, by his charisma. But I think it would also depend on why he lost.

If, for example, between now and November he makes a very serious gaffe or mistake of some kind that would cause people to lose confidence in him, that would be one thing. If he loses merely because of race, it would be another. The big issue for Obama, and it comes through in this poll and other polls, is to convince voters that he, a relatively young guy that they don't know, who has relatively little experience in foreign affairs and so forth, that he has the stature and the capability of being a commander-in-chief and of handling the difficult mess that the next president is going to inherit from George Bush.

To a large extent, this election is Obama's to lose, and I think that the tour that he's on of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq and today in Europe is going to give many voters an opportunity to see him in a different - a different kind of context.

He has performed amazingly well, as far as I can see, I mean...

Mr. COBB: So far.

Mr. WHITE: He has not backed away from the difficult challenges. His body language and the rest of it is very, very confident, and he seems to be signifying that he is the kind of person who really could take on these challenges, and I think it's been a big plus for him.

COX: It has been certainly an historic year. I want to thank all of you for appearing on this special Roundtable because there is a great deal at stake, and there is a lot more that we could talk about. Unfortunately, time has run out on us.

So let me thank you again. Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, joining us from Audio Image Recording Studios in Richmond, Virginia; Marjorie Valbrun teaches journalism at Howard University; and William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College. He spoke to us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting. All of our guests are contributors to the online magazine,, and this conversation continues online at our blog,

Ms. VALBRUN: Thank you.

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