02/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Does Obama's Presidency Mean for Race in America?

I think it Barack Obama's election will say less about race than many expect. That's because he's likely to say very little about it during his presidency. My understanding of life is: problems don't go away by ignoring them. But politics allows limited candor on certain issues and race is certain one of them.

Race operates on a number of levels and his ability to get elected president is something my generation of African Americans isn't terrible shocked by. We thought it would happen during our lifetimes, we just didn't know when. While his election is a tremendous milestone, America's racial issues can't be undone by the presence of one person, no matter how powerful. In that regard, Obama represents one tree in a much larger forest and we shouldn't overstate his potential to change the way we deal with racial issues.

Obama's election is tremendous. But I've long wondered if he would have been so validated by the larger society if he were not biracial or graduated from Morehouse College (alma mater of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. among many others) instead of Columbia University and Howard University School of Law (alma mater of Vernon Jordan, Doug Wilder, David Dinkins, among many others) instead of Harvard. Further, I think the deracialized campaign and the fear of being characterized as a "Black" presidential campaign reveals a great deal about the state of race in America. Would he be president if he were seen as the "Black" candidate or willing to discuss the issues that have a unique impact on African Americans? I think not. He would have scared too many Whites.

Ultimately, Obama's election should be seen as a jewel in the crown of the civil rights movement. The work that took place during the 1960s to ensure integration and other groundbreaking change made it possible. Many of the young whites who were drawn to Obama had a far more integrated upbringing either directly - through their neighborhoods and schools - or indirectly through popular culture.

We all should celebrate this great achievement for a man and the nation. We should resist the urge to hang the "mission accomplished" sign on our racial problems. That would erroneously discount the likelihood of racial prejudice rearing its ugly head in local and statewide elections. Not every candidate is as eloquent and comforting as Obama. Not every campaign gets this kind of attention.