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The Strong Wind at His Back

Well, the pundits were wrong. White voters didn't change their minds in the voting booth. Barack Obama's victory proves that some analysts gave too much weight to race, not only in gauging today's opinions but also in judging how the American people's attitudes have been taking shape for decades.

Polls released in October suggest that Obama's recent political progress may have changed some ideas about race in America. A New York Times/CBS poll showed that nearly two-thirds of the people asked said that whites and blacks have an equal chance of getting ahead in today's society (a dramatic increase over about half who said so just three months before).

Of course, there were holdouts. The October poll found 14 percent of Americans surveyed said that most people they knew would not vote for a black candidate. Yet that figure had dropped considerably over several months. As Americans got to see and hear Obama and learn more about him, they became more comfortable with the notion of his leadership in the White House.

Evidently, many voters were willing to make the "dream" that Martin Luther King Jr. described in a memorable speech 45 years ago a current reality. In his 1963 address, King looked hopefully to a day when blacks like his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." A lot of Americans seem to have done just that when they judged Barack Obama's character on November 4.

The polls reveal, too, that America's younger generation was more open to the idea of a black man running for president than the nation's older generation. If the only people allowed to vote this year had been Americans under 30, Obama's candidacy would have been locked up quickly. A USA Today/MTV/Gallup Poll released in October showed that the under-30 group favored Obama over John McCain by a whopping 61 percent to 32 percent.

As a group, older Americans tend to be more resistant to voting for a black candidate, partly because they had experiences in their early years different from today's younger generation.

Whites who are now over age 60 did not see many blacks in prominent positions of leadership in their younger years. During the 1950s and early 1960s African Americans lived segregated lives in the South and faced limited opportunities in the North. When whites encountered blacks directly in those times, they often saw them principally as janitors, elevator operators, or cleaning ladies. It was difficult to imagine an African American as president.

White Americans who are now between the ages of 18 and 29 tend to have had much more personal contact with African Americans, and they have had much greater exposure to blacks in positions of influence and authority. Lots of them have developed friendships with blacks in school and college. They have watched movies featuring Will Smith and Denzel Washington as super-heroes. A few decades ago black movie star Morgan Freeman was playing a slave, a convict, and a driver for a rich lady. In more recent films he has played the president of the United States (in Deep Impact) and even God (in Bruce Almighty).

Today's younger white Americans look up to Tiger Woods, and they cheer African-American sports figures in football, basketball and baseball. In recent years they have seen two blacks serving as U.S. secretary of state, and they have watched many blacks delivering the news on CNN or commenting on television about the recent elections.

The transformation towards black integration in American life has been an evolutionary process. Yet in view of all that has changed since Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "Dream" speech forty-five years ago, the shift appears revolutionary. Barack Obama, a talented candidate, got momentum in his race to the White House from the winds of that revolution.

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  • This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.