Five days after the election of the country’s first black president, the issue of race and its prominence in the agenda of the incoming Obama administration remain major question marks.
In his inaugural press conference Friday, President-elect Barack Obama made clear that the central focus of his first days in office will be the struggling economy, but for many blacks, the exhilaration of Tuesday’s result remains fresh.
“Four years ago, I never would have believed it could happen,” said Alvin Russell, a banking officer from Silver Spring. “I just did not think the country would be ready for it.”
Gerald O. Johnson, publisher of the Charlotte Post, a black-owned North Carolina newspaper, noted in an editorial that Mr. Obama’s campaign, which largely played down the issue of race, undermined the idea that “the job of president of the United States was a white man’s game, that others need not apply.”
Unlike previous black politicians such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, “Barack Obama did not come to the table touting African-American issues,” Mr. Johnson wrote in an editorial. “He sold himself talking about American issues.”
Some are openly speculating that Mr. Obama’s win may signal a radical reframing of the discussion on race in America, as well as altering the debate over affirmative action.
“This was a color-blind election,” said Deneen Borelli, a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington.
“Obama’s success certainly makes the case for any race-based preferential treatment a weak argument,” she said. “You may still have individuals out there who will try to uphold that 1950s and ‘60s argument that blacks still need such treatment, but his personal story proves otherwise.”
During the campaign, the Illinois Democrat listed several civil-rights issues that he would tackle if elected president, including employment inequities facing minorities and a ban on racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies.
“We shouldn’t ignore that race continues to matter,” Mr. Obama wrote on a questionnaire given to presidential candidates by the NAACP. “To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socio-economic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience - and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right.”
But there was little evidence that such issues will take precedence in the early days of Mr. Obama’s presidency, which are likely to be dominated by the economy and a host of foreign-policy challenges.
Political analysts have called Mr. Obama’s political style “post-racial,” a far cry from the explicit, race-conscious campaigns of Mr. Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Mr. Obama supported affirmative action while in the Illinois state legislature, but did not highlight the issue at all during his run in the Democratic primaries or in the general election with Republican Sen. John McCain. When asked about racial preferences in education, he has said his own daughters, raised in a solidly middle-class environment by two lawyers, should not get special preferences when applying for college.
Jeremy Mayer, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, predicted that affirmative action would be largely off the table for the new administration.
Mr. Obama “won’t expand it, he won’t end it, he won’t talk about it,” Mr. Mayer said. “It’s not on his list of the top 10 things or 20 things to do.”
The 2008 presidential campaign is likely to affect the question of race in America in numerous, often unexpected ways.
Pollsters say the race may have dealt a fatal blow to the so-called Bradley effect, the phenomenon where white voters will not be truthful when asked about their willingness to vote for a minority candidate. Mr. Obama’s six-point win closely followed what most major polls predicted in the days before the Nov. 4 vote.
“I certainly hope this drives a stake through the heart of that demon,” Charles Franklin, a specialist on polling at the University of Wisconsin, told Reuters news agency.
But Molefi Kete Asante, a pioneer of black studies at Temple University and author of more than 60 books, noted that Mr. Obama did not win a majority of the white vote Tuesday, needing substantial majorities of the black and Hispanic votes to put him over the top.
Mr. Asante also noted that Mr. Obama’s personal story is not typical of most blacks. The son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a white mother from Kansas, Mr. Obama has no personal family history of slavery and was largely raised in multiracial Hawaii.
The country’s late-night comedians are already having to adjust to the fact of a black president, and to what it says about the country.
Craig Ferguson, host of the “Late Late Show,” called the election of the cerebral, low-key Mr. Obama “terrible for a late-night talk-show host.”
“We have a dignified African-American running the country. What the [heck] can I do with that? My only hope is [Vice President-elect Joseph R.] Biden,” Mr. Ferguson said.
The day after Mr. Obama’s historic win, faux pundit Stephen Colbert joked to guest Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, on his “Colbert Report” satiric show, “I’m not sure what we’ll talk about now that racism is over.”
• Sean Lengell contributed to this report.