Obama lifts a curtain on the black middle class

Would a Barack Obama presidency close the racial divide in America? Would a President Obama "transcend" race? Would the election of a black man as president limit claims of racial victimization by black Americans or acts of racism by white Americans?

No, no, and absolutely not. Only the terminally naive might suggest that an Obama presidency would be a magic pill to heal the nation's racial wounds.

Still, win or lose, Obama's campaign has already changed the nation's racial dynamic, if only by highlighting the accomplishments of the black middle class. From now on, it ought to be possible to discuss poverty as a condition that affects Americans of all colors, not just black Americans. It should be simpler to craft solutions to the problems of poor housing, teen pregnancy and delinquency if those ills are not viewed through a racial lens. In other words, it ought to be easier to separate race from class.

Obama is an Ivy Leaguer, a graduate of Columbia and Harvard. His wife, Michelle, holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. Their friends and campaign strategists include other high-earning black professionals with advanced degrees, representing a little-recognized group of black Americans whose values and ambitions are virtually indistinguishable from those of their white counterparts.

The growth of the black middle class is one of this nation's great success stories, a testament to the country's expansion of opportunity across the color line. Black Americans remain disproportionately trapped in poverty &

an estimated 25 percent of blacks live below the poverty line, while only 8 percent of whites do. But most black Americans are not poor. (The actual numbers of whites and blacks in poverty are closer: about 22.6 million whites and 35.4 million blacks.)

The nation had a handful of black professionals and entrepreneurs as early as the 18th century, but the rise of a large and influential black middle class is a legacy of the civil rights movement, which forced open the doors to good schools and good jobs.

Oddly, that substantial subset of middle-class America has remained hidden from the mainstream. Since the nation is still socially segregated, many whites have had limited exposure to real-life black physicians, college professors and business executives. And Hollywood only rarely attempts to feature black middle-class families in prime time, as it did with "The Cosby Show."

It's no wonder, then, that Fox News talking head Bill O'Reilly was shocked, shocked! to discover last year that the black patrons of a Harlem soul food restaurant were well-mannered and civil. "There wasn't any kind of craziness at all!" said Bill.

Given that the hardworking black middle class is rarely portrayed among the thugs, gangbangers and morons who parade through local television newscasts, how would O'Reilly know?

Of course, it's also true that Jesse Jackson and his ilk have done their part to minimize the existence of a healthy black middle class. Jackson and other self-appointed spokesmen for black America have long propounded a doctrine of black grievance and white guilt &

a view that makes them reluctant to acknowledge the rise of an educated and independent-minded black professional class.

And yet that professional class exists and is flourishing &

men and women who don't see themselves limited by racism at every turn. That's not to say they believe racism has disappeared; most of them don't. But they have broken through racial barriers to advance anyway.

Obama's campaign symbolizes that resolve, and his example may be more important for black Americans than for their white neighbors. He reminds black schoolchildren that hard work pays off, that academic success is a route to popularity, that good diction is cool. He plays basketball, but his subjects and verbs still agree. He is married to the mother of his two children.

Ironically, some white voters (primed by John McCain's negative ads) see something to dislike in Obama's success. In certain precincts, he's been labeled arrogant. Or elitist. Or presumptuous. Or all three.

So be it. The first black man to win a major party's nomination was surely going to be smeared with stereotypes of some sort. The "elitist" label may actually represent progress.

is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.

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