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Governing in Black and White

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008; 9:46 AM

One of the unspoken tenets of Barack Obama's candidacy is that his election would be a milestone for race relations, healing many of the country's wounds.

That may well be the case, if it comes to pass. But there is cause for skepticism.

I have no doubt that this shattering of the ultimate glass ceiling would instill great pride in African Americans and make many white Americans proud of their country as well. But some may view an actual, flesh-and-blood Obama administration very differently.

That NYT poll I mentioned the other day found "about half of black voters said race relations would improve in an Obama administration, compared with 29 percent of whites. About 40 percent of blacks said that Mr. McCain, if elected president, would favor whites over blacks should he win the election."

But for all racial groups, I would pose this question: What happens six months after the inauguration, when the problems pile up and the glow has worn off?

I was working in New York in 1989 when David Dinkins was elected the city's first black mayor. It was a hopeful moment after a dozen years of Ed Koch, during which several high-profile racial attacks, in such places as Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, left the city scarred.

Dinkins was a courtly gentleman who once helped me put on my coat. He was also a machine hack and a mediocre mayor at best. As crime rose and the sense that the city was out of control took hold, the New York Post demanded in a famous front-page headline: "DAVE, DO SOMETHING!"

He didn't do enough, and Rudy Giuliani beat him in their 1993 rematch. Dinkins made history, but he was a one-termer.

There have been very successful black mayors, such as Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, and Doug Wilder was a reasonably successful governor of Virginia. On the other hand, two black mayors of Newark have been indicted: Ken Gibson pleaded guilty to tax fraud and Sharpe James is fighting corruption charges. Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell was convicted of tax evasion. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is battling perjury charges after getting caught having an affair with his chief of staff. Carole Moseley-Braun, from Obama's home state of Illinois, is the only African American woman ever elected to the Senate, but the voters sent her packing after one term amid allegations of ethical violations.

Yes, there have been legions of corrupt and incompetent white officials. My point is the promise of a new racial era often doesn't match the reality. Dinkins couldn't even bring racial harmony to New York; there was a race riot in Crown Heights in 1991, marked by clashes between blacks and Jews.

The presidency, of course, is different. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his administration, Obama would become the symbol of America to the rest of the world. Michelle Obama would be a trailblazer after 41 white first ladies (James Buchanan was a bachelor). But expectations would be so sky-high it's an open question whether anyone could meet them.

Meanwhile, the Obama team is pushing back on that Times survey ("Poll Finds Obama Isn't Closing Divide on Race"), using the paper's numbers to make these points:

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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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