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Much work ahead, say race scholars

For Professor of Africana Studies Tricia Rose PhD'93, Barack Obama's election Tuesday as the nation's first black president is just the beginning of a larger story.

"That curtain went down, but now the curtain has to go back up," Rose said Wednesday. "And what will happen in the second act? That's not a given."

For Rose and other Brown professors who study racial inequality, policy and politics, Obama's victory was not just historic but also steeped in significance. His election is "momentous" and "remarkable," they said - "a turning point." But Tuesday's vote by no means represents an end to racial inequality in America, they stressed.

Professor of Economics Glenn Loury, a prominent scholar on racial inequality and social policy, said he was struck and inspired by Obama's success.

Loury was skeptical when Obama's campaign first launched, he said. In remarks aired last night on the BBC, he explained it had not seemed possible that "the deep structure of American power would permit the ascent of this son of Africa to its pinnacle."

In that sense, the election results were humbling, said Loury, who is black and grew up on the South side of Chicago in the 1960s.

"Something we never imagined happened, and now the system is open and malleable," he said. "Reform now seems possible."

But many aspects of American race relations are still "up for grabs," Loury said.

"One in seven adult black men are in prison, and that didn't vanish last night," he said. "The ghettoes in Chicago and Detroit did not disappear last night. The fact that African-Americans are underrepresented in elite universities, law schools and scientific institutions didn't change last night."

Still, Obama's victory ended a period of political exclusion for African-Americans, said Rose, who is an expert on black culture and American cultural politics.

The hate speech and outward actions that were once the "dominant American form of racism" have largely disappeared, she said. But structural racial oppression still exists in areas such as criminal justice, housing and education, she added, and those issues are just a few Obama will be expected to address.

"I'm excited about the possibilities, but I have some caveats," Rose said. "We must face the reality of structural forms of inequality in the present" and not settle for "symbolic equality."

Assistant Professor of Political Science Katrina Gamble, who studies racial politics, said she sees opportunities to bolster political equality in the wake of Obama's win. By changing expectations about African-American candidates, Gamble said, the 2008 presidential race could make officeholders more diverse.

Conventional wisdom has held that black candidates could only win in places with high concentrations of black voters. Because of Obama's victory, Gamble said, black candidates may seek higher offices and run in more areas.

"This opens up a wealth of new political opportunities for candidates," she said.

Obama also turned out record numbers of black voters, Gamble said, but it is unclear whether that expanded involvement will prove formative or fleeting. Obama's campaign was uniquely successful at mobilizing voters and generated unprecedented enthusiasm, she said. But with the historic first now passed, Gamble said she will be curious to see whether the expanded participation will carry over to future elections.

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