SELMA, Ala. _ It ranks as America’s bedrock civics lesson and most enduring national fable: the notion that any child born a U.S. citizen can one day grow up to become president. And on Tuesday night, for nearly 11 million African-American children, that fable finally came true.
“When you ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up, they always say they want to work at McDonald’s or at Wal-Mart,” said Joslyn Reddick, the principal of an elementary school in this iconic city so closely tied to America’s civil rights struggle.
“Now they will see that an African-American has achieved the highest station in the United States. They can see for themselves that dreams can come true.”
The decisive victory of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain lends itself to all kinds of superlatives: unprecedented, historic, epochal. But the real impact of Obama’s election is measured in millions of smaller, individual reactions _ in the elation of African-Americans who can at last see in the nation’s leader a reflection of themselves, or the enthusiasm of whites who hope for improvement in the nation’s long-troubled racial relations.
“A black man has just become the most high-profile human being on the planet Earth,” exulted Gina McCauley, an attorney and prominent black commentator in Austin, Texas. “I don’t think we can quantify how that will change the way African-Americans view themselves and the country.”
Americans of all persuasions paused Tuesday to take stock of just how far their nation had come in the realm of racial relations.
For many, it was an occasion to marvel at the progress.
“You think about where we were as a country, how the South was segregated,” said Sandy Spiegel, 66, a white retired nurse and lifelong Republican from Chicago who switched her party affiliation this year so she could vote for Obama. “I think this is just hopeful for our country in the 21st century, to have someone that has so many skills, so many abilities and is a man of color.
“I honestly think this will be extremely well received on a global basis, that America can actually elect someone other than a white male.”
Yet the gulf in both perceptions and reality between blacks and whites in the United States remains wide. Blacks are twice as likely as whites to tell pollsters that racial discrimination remains a major problem in the country. Three times as many blacks as whites live below the poverty line, and they are twice as likely to be jobless.
As a result, race _ and race-based fears _ coursed beneath the surface of the campaign.
Even among the millions of ordinary white Americans who recoil at any kind of racial extremism, there was a distinct sense that for some, the concept of a black president would take some getting used to.
In culturally conservative Meigs County in southeastern Ohio, where blacks make up less than 1 percent of the population, racial diversity is something residents read about in a magazine or see on television because the closest large population of blacks live more than 80 miles north, in Columbus, or a two-hour drive west, in Cincinnati.
Despite chronic unemployment and little optimism for a brighter economic future, voters here gave President Bush nearly 60 percent of their support in 2004. Last March, in the Democratic primary, the agent of change they embraced was Hillary Clinton, who clobbered Obama in Meigs County by a whopping 4-to-1 margin.
For Meigs County residents, some of whom still refer to blacks as “coloreds,” Obama _ like blacks in general _ remains an unknown, and therefore suspicious.
“I hate to sound racist, but I’m afraid of another situation with the South seceding from the Union, another Civil War,” said Jason Pierce, 20, a construction worker who lives in Pomeroy, Ohio. “I think a lot of people will see this as (blacks) trying to take over the country.”
By contrast, many other whites, particularly from more urbanized areas of the nation, were not simply making their peace with Obama’s victory _ they were rejoicing over it.
“This is like a revolution!” exclaimed Spiegel, who attended Duke University nursing school at a time when the school was segregated and lived for years in the strongly Republican Chicago suburb of Naperville. “I think Obama is going to be an amazing president.”
(Glanton reported from Selma, Witt from Houston. Chicago Tribune correspondents Tim Jones in Meigs County, Ohio, and Colleen Mastony, Jessica Reaves and Tom Hundley in Chicago contributed to this report.)