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Joan Vennochi

Closing the door on victimhood

By Joan Vennochi
November 6, 2008
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JESSE JACKSON'S tears as he watched Barack Obama's victory speech said it all. The face of the aging civil rights leader - a man who witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and twice ran for president himself - conveyed pride and amazement in Obama's accomplishment.

It was also a reminder that Obama's victory closes the curtain on the old civil rights movement. A new era began with the election of America's first black president.

The feeling of being witness to a very special moment in American politics permeated election night. "This is an historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African-Americans," declared Republican candidate John McCain in his concession speech. ". . . We both realize that we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation's reputation."

Obama campaigned as an African-American candidate without a race-based agenda. Yet exactly what it means for the country to be led by a so-called "post-racial" president is still unclear. While Obama's victory is bound to alter the conversation about race between black and white Americans, it doesn't immediately solve the problems that long motivated civil rights leaders.

How might Obama's remarkable achievement affect policy? During a debate in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton, Obama said in response to a question that his own daughters do not deserve affirmative action because of their economic privilege. As president, will he lead the way from race-based to class-based policies?

Some black leaders say Obama's political success means it's time to shift away from the dialogue of victimhood.

"Racism is no longer the primary obstacle to black progress. With the election of a black man whose middle name is Hussein, the rhetoric of white racism is off the table," declared the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Boston-based minister with a national agenda and a history of taking controversial stands. "Black people don't want to hear it. White people don't want to hear it. . . . The old school is over."

By "old school," Rivers is referring to what he calls the "professional protest leadership" represented by civil rights activists like Jackson. That worldview, said Rivers, calls for "decrying inequality" and blaming white racism for all the problems of African-Americans.

Kevin Peterson, a Boston community activist who runs the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester, also calls for a new brand of black leadership. "Obama's success this political cycle represents a new style," Peterson said. "The notion that black people need to employ racially polarizing stances is now extinct. There are more effective ways to get things done for our communities than being accusatory."

At the same time, major disparities in income and education continue to separate black and white America; gang violence takes the lives of black teenagers in cities across America; and a generation of black men call prison their home. Community leaders want these problems solved somehow.

Said the Rev. Mark Scott, another Boston-based minister, "You can't say it's because of racism. You can't just say, 'Pull your pants up.' You have to ask, 'What work are we going to do to close the gaps?' "

During the campaign, Obama was forced to break with the racially polarizing rhetoric of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In his speech on race, Obama faulted Wright for failing to recognize the country's racial progress. However, he did not cut Wright loose until the minister reignited the controversy with more polarizing remarks.

Obama did not escape criticism for some of his own remarks, including a reference to his grandmother as "a typical white person." But he stayed away from the inflammatory rhetoric of the past.

Last summer, Jackson was caught on videotape making crude remarks about Obama and accusing the presidential candidate of "talking down to black people." He was scolded by his son, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., who served as co-chairman of Obama's presidential campaign and is now being mentioned as a contender for Obama's US Senate seat.

With Obama's victory, the torch is passing to a new generation of black leaders. But they still face some of the same old challenges.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail is vennochi@globe.com.

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