Obama's rise spotlights gains in race relations

It's not all black and white.

Americans across racial and ethnic lines say Barack Obama's groundbreaking candidacy has both spotlighted the state of race relations in the United States and changed it.

A nationwide survey exploring the complicated crosscurrents of race and politics — co-sponsored by USA TODAY, ABC News and Columbia University — finds that the first nomination of an African American for president by a major party has prompted a surge in national pride and political engagement among blacks.

It also shows a clear consensus among whites, blacks and Hispanics about the top priorities for the next president, especially when it comes to the economy.

Fredrick Harris, director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia, says the poll results may signal "the passing of a generation" as many blacks move toward "race-neutral" solutions to economic and other challenges.

He notes that African Americans split evenly when asked whether they saw themselves as blacks first or Americans first. "That's quite new for a group that's been marginalized in society and considered second-class citizens for much of its history," he says.

But the survey also makes clear that blacks and whites see the presidential campaign through different prisms.

Seven in 10 blacks expect Obama to win in November. Among the 13% who predict Republican John McCain will prevail, racism is the reason most often cited. The 50% of whites who expect McCain to win are most likely to cite the candidates' levels of experience as the reason. Only 5% of whites who say McCain will win call racism the key factor.

"Especially with the economy the way that it is, the fact that we're in two wars — I don't necessarily think that people will choose somebody who really doesn't have all that much experience," says Andrew Dufkin, 22, a student and painter from Coxsackie, N.Y., who is white. He was among those called in the survey.

However, Lee Rutledge, 65, a freelance writer from Riverside, Calif., who is black, says that racism "is always kind of lurking in the background," although the "Whites Only" signs he saw when stationed by the Army in Georgia in 1964 are a thing of the past.

Beyond politics, blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than whites to see racism as a persistent problem in their communities and to report it as part of their own lives. Six of 10 blacks and 4 of 10 Hispanics say they personally have experienced discrimination often or occasionally, compared with 14% of whites.

Blacks also are much more likely than whites to report serious problems in their neighborhoods with crime, poor schools and a lack of jobs. They put a higher priority on addressing poverty, inequalities in the criminal justice system and reparations for slavery than whites do.

Hispanics rank immigration as a more critical issue than non-Hispanics do.

Even so, the current angst over the economy bridges racial and ethnic divides. Blacks, whites and Hispanics agree that the economy and jobs should head the new president's agenda in January. The other concerns near the top of everyone's list: terrorism, health care and education.

By overwhelming margins, all three groups agree that the country is on the wrong track. One-third or a bit more of whites, blacks and Hispanics say they feel financially insecure.

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