- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2008

At Ben’s Chili Bowl, the excitement of this autumn is palpable. It is football season and it is election season, and for this longtime hub of Washington’s black community, there is an extra sense of pride.

After a lackluster few years, the Washington Redskins - the last NFL team to integrate in the early 1960s - were 6-3, after a 23-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday night. Although there has been nearly a generation of talk about black quarterbacks, the results have finally caught up with the rhetoric, with more than 10 playing in the NFL, including Washington’s Jason Campbell, one of the league’s top-rated passers.

Now, voters are on their way to the polls, where millions will cast their vote for Barack Obama, the first black major-party nominee for president.

Later this week, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, a native Washingtonian, will open in the title role in “Carmen” with the Washington National Opera.

It’s been decades since the civil rights movement began and more than a half-century since opera singer Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being denied the stage at Constitution Hall because of her race. This fall, though, may be a turning point for those who remember a divided city and a divided country.

“It is a historical time,” said Andre Booker, a 41-year-old Washington native having lunch at Ben’s Chili Bowl. “It shows how far this country has come, but how far it still has to go when it comes to race. I think the world is really excited about the new direction this country could be heading in.”

Of course, progress toward the ideal of a color-blind society also means the freedom to intellectually oppose a black presidential candidate, despite racial pride.

Michael S. Steele, who was the first black chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said he is “very proud” of Mr. Obama for “getting this far, [to the point] of possibly winning the presidency.”

Still, “I won’t let race or racial pride trump my particular philosophical beliefs,” he said. “If I am opposed to raising taxes, how can I support someone who would do just that? If I oppose nationalizing health care and jeopardizing ill Americans, how can I support someone who favors that?”

“When Barack came into Maryland to campaign against me when I was running for the U.S. Senate, he said, ‘Don’t vote your race; vote your interests,’” Mr. Steele recalls of his 2006 senatorial bid. “Well, that’s exactly how I feel about Obama and McCain.”

Nizam Ali, one of the co-owners of Ben’s, is too young to remember the riots of 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, but his parents, who founded the restaurant 50 years ago, have told him about the riots right outside their door.

Today, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats sit side by side at the grill on a revitalized U Street.

“It is weird to say, but it hasn’t quite dawned on me that, hopefully, we will have the first black president,” he said. “We are on the cusp of being headed in a new direction. It is more of a unity sentiment than a divided sentiment.”

Cora Masters Barry, former D.C. first lady and current chief executive officer of the Recreation Wish List, said that so many barriers have been broken in Washington.

“For these young people I deal with on a daily basis, when you look around with their perspective, they know they can really dream to be anything,” Mrs. Barry said. “This generation of children has no barriers to their dreams.”

Even for some of today’s adults, many of those barriers were broken years ago. Mr. Campbell was born in 1981, so he was a small child in 1988 when Doug Williams, then a Redskin, became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. The dearth of black quarterbacks 20 years ago seems as far away as the “I Have a Dream” speech.

Mr. Obama being this close to the presidency is a more relevant discussion in the Redskins’ locker room.

“In life, things change, and there is always a first time for everything,” Mr. Campbell said.

If Mr. Obama wins, “it would mean our country is willing to adapt to change and willing to do whatever it takes, if they think it is for the betterment of the country and not base it on race or color,” he said. “It is about who can get the job done.”

However, having accomplished people of color does not mean the struggle has been won for everyone, said Edna Medford, Howard University associate professor of history.

“There is a lot to be proud of for local residents,” she said. “But in this city, there are thousands of other people who are hurting. When we get to that point where they can succeed, then race will not be an issue.”

Ms. Medford said Americans are seeing “steps toward full inclusion.”

“We won’t be all the way there, even if Barack Obama wins the election,” she said. “But it is a step in the right direction.”

Mrs. Barry agreed.

“Barack Obama can get elected president,” she said. “And the day after he is elected, there will still be a black man who can’t get a cab in New York City. That’s not going to change so soon. There are going to be people who hold people back because of superficial reasons. We can see some of that in the things that have gone on in this election. What is good, though, is this is a catharsis for this country.”

Ryan O’Halloran and Ralph Hallow contributed to this story.

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