01/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Knows Slow and Steady Wins Race Relations

Since President-elect Barack Obama won the election last month, there's been some speculation about what this means for the American black community. Put differently, the issue has turned into a question about how much the President-elect's blackness actually matters.

There's no denying that President-elect Obama's culture and heritage have impacted who he is today. For many Americans, this is a positive reflection of the man's values. He wishes to honor his family and his community. Yet, he takes over an America that at least partially perceives hard work and education as elements of "acting white."

Several professors and thinkers participated last night in a panel to discuss this topic. The Smith Family Foundation sponsored the event that led a dialogue between conservatives and liberals on the subject of whether President-elect Obama will ignite the kind of change he promised during the campaign. What both sides seemed to agree on, however, was that in order to get elected, Mr. Obama was forced to downplay "black issues" like housing, gang violence and AIDS and instead to portray a more unified America.

What's remarkable about this deliberate underemphasis of black issues is that Mr. Obama had little trouble picking up black supporters along his way. He grabbed them with promises of hope and change that didn't outline or go into detail about specific social programs that would benefit anyone in particular. It worked. Liberals explain that now, for the first time, blacks have a full sense of citizenship in this country. They cite polls indicating that blacks are putting their American identities ahead of their black identities.

So what's been holding up blacks for this long? This is an age-old debate. While structural racism is still a rampant problem in this country, black conservatives stress the need for people to seek individual initiative and accept personal responsibility. While Barack Obama's presidency won't solve the problems, it has the potential to inspire people to tackle their problems rather than back down or complain about the world being unfair.

The panel agreed that Mr. Obama is a global thinker who has a universal approach. Legacy and trauma remain pieces of what motivates him, yet he stays focused on rectifying and rebuilding in order to prevent further trauma. In order to address some of these issues, politicians and others must be sensitive to the turbulent history that many blacks still feel is relevant and affects their lives.

And that's where hope steps in. One audience member during the Question and Answer portion of the night correctly noted that the panel had spoken for roughly an hour about what the Obama Presidency means for blacks without even mentioning the word hope. I hadn't recognized this oversight until it was pointed out. Looking at it now, though, I realize that it's an essential point to bring up during this discussion.

Although all of the panelists were impressive and sound in their beliefs, they dealt with the question from an intellectual perspective instead of an emotional one. Their examples and evidence were all true - that polls and research indicate that blacks continue to feel a sense of suffering and get the short end of the stick at times. The panel's focus throughout remained on how external influences such as governmental programs could be mended to create a better, more compassionate and more fair America for everyone. This is what these thinkers are hired to lecture about, publish on, and teach.

Yet it took a member of the audience to remind them that feelings of racism come from within. Through giving people hope, Mr. Obama has already changed attitudes and begun to curb misconceptions and stereotypes. He's getting people to reform the way they think about race relations before he's even taken office. Skeptics may wonder whether there's any value to that since nothing, from a practical and functional end, has changed. But American citizens know and recognize that something has changed already.

At one point during the panel discussion, one of the panelists dismissed anecdotal evidence as being inferior to empirical data. During a philosophical debate, there's no place for conjectures based on one person's opinions, beliefs or experiences. For me, though, the most telling moment of the night was also the lone emotional one.

After the hope question was posed to the panel, one of the panelists spoke about the joy he and his family felt on election night when Barack Obama was announced as the winner. He said tears ran down their faces. America has been fundamentally and ostensibly changed. The external changes will hopefully follow.