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Keli Goff

Keli Goff

Posted: June 5, 2008 02:38 PM

Obama has Made History but Can He Change it?


Throughout this primary campaign so much focus has been paid to the role of race. There have been debates about whether or not Barack Obama is "black enough" or whether he will ever be able to win over working class (or as Sen. Clinton calls them "hard working") white Americans. But most of these debates have focused on the impact that race has on the campaign itself--not on the impact it can have when it actually comes time to govern.

Part of Barack Obama's greatest strength in this primary has been his alleged ability to "transcend race" as some pundits have said. This notion was clearly on display during his victory speech Tuesday night, as he spoke triumphantly of the immense opportunity this presidential race presents for all Americans without a specific mention of so-called "Black America." But there are some very real problems that his mere presence as a black nominee, and possible president, can impact.

As NBC's Tim Russert observed, how incredible it must have been to be a history teacher in an inner-city school on Wednesday morning. While Russert did not elaborate beyond that statement, his point was well taken, particularly by any African-American who heard it. The crisis facing black boys in this country is well documented. A study published in the New York Times in 2004 noted that nearly half of all black boys in some inner cities were high school dropouts. It further noted that according to statistics, by their mid-30's 6 in 10 black males who have dropped out of high school have spent time in prison. These disturbing numbers are clearly not lost on Sen. Obama. When asked by NBC's Brian Williams about reflecting on the historic nature of his victory Obama said, "Probably the most powerful story I heard was today at a conference, a woman came up to me...She said her son teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco and said that he has seen a change in behavior among the young African-American boys there in terms of how they think about their studies. And, you know, so those are the kinds of things that I think make you appreciate that it's not about you as an individual. But it's about our country and the progress we've made."

But there are other issues on which Barack Obama, as not just a nominee, but as a black nominee, can have a profound impact. In 2006, he and his wife Michelle were heralded for their willingness to publicly take an AIDS test in his father's homeland of Kenya, which has been ravaged by the disease. Experts noted that an act by such a high profile couple could work wonders in removing the stigma from AIDS testing and education. But equally important, during his trip Obama had a stern message for Kenyan men and their need for responsibility when it comes to the spread of the disease. "Respect the girls. Abusing or taking sexual advantage of women does not make you a big man. It makes you a small man to do that."

This message could prove just as important in the country where he may become president. According to the Centers for Disease Control AIDS is the leading cause of death for young, black American women.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that Barack Obama's nomination changes everything. I'm not going to say that if he becomes president all of Black America's ills will magically disappear. But I will say that his nomination changes something. Even if it's that there will now be black men and women who feel better about themselves, and about what's possible in life, and as a result decide to make better choices about their sexual health and protecting their own lives as well as those they love. And another change? That today in the classroom of some inner city school there is a black boy who now believes that there is another career goal for him to aspire to when he grows up besides rapper, athlete or inmate: president.

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