There is no argument that the election of a black president spoke volumes about the progress blacks had made since the end of slavery and legal segregation. That Obama garnered a higher percentage of the white vote in 2008 than did Democrats John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale in their elections spoke volumes about how much racial attitudes in the country had changed. And the fact he was elected as the country was plunging into its worst economic slump since the Great Depression had its own significance.
"What is most important about [Obama's election] was that for the first time in the nation's history, to get us out of a jam, we turned to and trusted a black man," wrote Robert O. Self, an associate history professor at Brown University.
The election result was seen as enormous racial boost for the country. A day after the polls closed, 70% of respondents in a Gallup poll said race relations would improve with Obama's election. Two-thirds said that his election was the most or among the most significant events with regard to race in the last 100 years. Blacks reacted with a mixture of disbelief and pride.
"We just felt so much better about ourselves," says Julian Bond.
Though Obama's white support eroded during his first term, he was still able to make up for it with huge winning margins among black, Hispanic, Asian and young voters, signaling the new power of minorities and the generation shift in attitudes regarding race.
As with every leap forward in the racial arena, Obama's election has not come without costs. While his policies have been credited with halting the economic crisis the country was suffering through when he entered office, he has been unable, in the face of stiff Republican resistance, to enact further measures to bolster a weak recovery. As a result, it has been black people, his most loyal supporters, who have suffered the most economically during his tenure.
Also, his election has unleashed a torrent of racially tinged invective toward him. Throughout the country's history, presidents' opponents have based much of their criticism on the chief executive's personal characteristics and foibles. It should not be surprising that, in this case, one of the most frequent lines of personal attacks involves Obama's race.
Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, Obama's election spawned the view among some whites that no more needed to be done to advance the progress of African-Americans, and that since a black man occupied the Oval Office, anti-discrimination measures such as the Voting Rights Act are were no longer needed.
To some that may ring true. Others are more inclined to believe Jelani Cobb , director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, who wrote earlier this year that, "the only impediment to realizing the creed of 'We Shall Overcome' is the narcotic belief that we already have."