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Looking Back and Moving Forward

Posted on Nov 5, 2008
AP photo / Alex Brandon

President-elect Barack Obama walks off the stage after speaking at his election night party at Chicago’s Grant Park on Tuesday night.

By Bill Boyarsky

Barack Obama’s huge victory sent me down memory lane to the segregated America of a half-century ago, when a black person couldn’t crack the news columns of my Northern California hometown newspaper, much less get a job there.

Not in my wildest imaginings in those days could I have conceived of a black man being elected president of the United States. Not when we on the Oakland Tribune staff ignored one of the nation’s most important African-American communities and tolerated racist police who were brutal toward blacks unlucky enough to cross their path.

President? Blacks were not even hired as cub reporters, or copy boys, on The Oakland Tribune. “Send a black man to Piedmont?” asked an amazed editor, his voice hoarse from years of yelling at underlings, when staff members suggested hiring a black reporter. Piedmont was the richest and snobbiest of the communities on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay and, except for maids, African-Americans didn’t venture there.

This is a day to think about how far we’ve come, to think about our experiences in past times and how we are now ready to begin forging a country where all of life is no longer defined by race.

Race has been a steady undercurrent in my career. Twenty-five years before Obama’s presidential victory, I was privileged to report the election of another African-American, Tom Bradley, as mayor of Los Angeles, a momentous event in a city with a long history of segregation and discrimination against ethnic minorities. Yes, that’s the Bradley of the so-called Bradley effect, that vague and inaccurate gauge of white prejudice, which, by the way, proved to be nonexistent in Tuesday’s presidential election. These days I write about a Hispanic mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa. My past is filled with stories on school integration, improving the public schools, disciplining racist cops, and just recording the day-to-day life of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans in a city that foreshadowed the national changes so dramatically illustrated by Obama’s election. And, of course, there was the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a racial story I still don’t understand, even though I covered it, except to say it certainly exposed the racial gulf.


Square, Site wide

Discussions and tensions over race were a constant presence inside the paper where I spent most of my working life, the Los Angeles Times. The turmoil in our newsroom mirrored a world outside, a Southern California that had become a multiracial and multicultural land.

There were beefs over jobs, promotions, assignments and coverage, all usually masked by a false friendliness endemic to Los Angeles but sometimes exploding in staff-splitting arguments.

Andrea Ford was an African-American reporter who spoke her mind during and after the 1992 riot and the O.J. Simpson trial, which she covered. I was a columnist, and one of my pieces described blacks being racist toward Korean-Americans during the riot period.

Andrea came up to me in the newsroom, in front of everybody, and said my column was wrong. Neither of us would give an inch. We argued, loudly. It happened again during the Simpson trial, over another column. This time our argument was so loud and intense that a television reporter asked us to take it into the hallway because he had to do a standup.

I thought those arguments were draining and she probably did too. But we were friends. We enjoyed a drink together. We liked to share stories about how our kids gave us a hard time. We pretty much agreed on which bosses were jerks.

This was a painful and continuing education. Without really intending to, when I was city editor I put together a city desk of one African-American, four Latinos and five whites. By then, most stories had racial overtones, and we all talked about them. Not formally, not under the guidance of a diversity coach, which newspapers loved in those days, but in the clipped, hurried, no-nonsense way of pressured people who had a paper to put out. We didn’t make a big deal of it, but we really tried to cover ethnic L.A. in all its complexity. 

I learned a lot from those experiences. They helped guide me as I set out to write about the presidential campaign.

I believed whites would vote for an African-American man, at least enough would to elect him president, just as enough whites voted for a black and a Hispanic to make them mayors of Los Angeles. My gut feeling was reinforced by what I saw on the streets and by studies that showed interracial marriage and dating were on the rise. 

That’s what happened. Obama received 43 percent of the white vote, according to the New York Times exit poll. He received 95 percent support from blacks, 66 percent from Hispanics and 62 percent from Asian-Americans. His support also cut across religious lines, including 45 percent from Protestants, 53 percent from Catholics and 77 percent from Jews.

“Send a black man to Piedmont?” asked the old Oakland Tribune editor. Yes. 

To Piedmont, to the White House, to the leadership of a new and greater America.

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By Sheldon L. McCormick, October 5, 2010 at 10:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Negroes simply aren’t fit to live in our (white su-premacist) society,” George Lincoln Rockwell, with iron-clad certainty, corncob pipe and crossed arms,  declared to Canadian T.V. viewers in the 1960s. “They just can’t make it!” The founder-leader of the American Nazi Party, who was slain by an ousted follower in 1967, voiced what most of American white society believed and some still believe. Despite the numerous achievement in every field that African-Americans, including Barack Obama being elected and serving as President of the United States, some still harbor racist views. Black journalists like the late great Andrea Ford contributed to notable gains of blacks, reporting on them, proving black journalists, including herself, can accomplished positive efforts in American society.  Not only that, but also exposing issues that effect the whole community, i.e. the epedemic of crack cocaine, gang violence and other negative issues. Such reporting by African-American news media people must continue in the Obama-Internet era with the same, if not more, vigor than in the openly racist yore of Commander Rockwell’s time. He, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the late notorious Birmingham, Alabama commish and their evil ilk maybe dead. But the struggle for freedom, justice and equality continues. Oppression, racism and bias remain alive.

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By Rogelio, November 10, 2008 at 9:09 am Link to this comment

In my opinion, cyrena, many Caribbean Afro-Hispanos dislike being compared to African-Americans for a number of reasons. First, in many of their countries (Dominican, Hati, Barbados, etc…) they are not a minority but the majority. Generally speaking, their skin color has not prevented them from advancing (Jim Crow laws). A history of oppression does exists, but at the hands of imperialist who were kicked out long ago. Secondly, when Afro-Hispanos arrive in the U.S. they are viewed by some Anglo-Americans as African-Americans because of thier skin color. Thirdly, this “stereotype” is certainly a cause for anger and spite. Afro-Hispanos and African-Americans have a different background and cultural history. Unfortuantely, for African-Americans, they suffer from a negative perception among some Anglo-Americans.

For example, for many Mexican-Americans of my generations (60s and 70s), we preferred to be called Spansh rather than Mexican. The name Mexican carried a negative connotation. Likewise, Salvadoreans and Hondurans dislike being called “Mexicans.” I have no problem being labeled a Latino, but I am Mexican-American before I am a general label that is Latino.

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By eileen fleming, November 9, 2008 at 6:19 am Link to this comment

The Palestinians have become the “N’s” of the world and I once wrote an article on that topic.

I was reamed up and down by a group of supposedly “progressive Christians”-hahahaha.

“Looking Back and On My Way to Israel Palestine for the 6th time” just so happens to be the title of my Nov. 9th essay.

If any seek an education, I offer a sampling of video [with Vanunu, the Whistleblower of Israels WMD Program] and reports from my first five trips to Israel and occupied Palestine:

Eileen Fleming, Citizen Journalist and Founder WAWA:
Author “Keep Hope Alive” l
“Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory”
“So, That was 54…”
Producer “30 Minutes With Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”

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By cyrena, November 9, 2008 at 2:26 am Link to this comment

“...For example, there are many Carribean Afro-Hispanos that dislike being compared to African-Americans…”


Just out of curiosity Rigio, why do you think this is?

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By Outraged, November 8, 2008 at 11:13 am Link to this comment

Check out this story from Mississippi.  Disgraceful, these people should not be “disciplined” they should be FIRED.  At Rawstory, an excerpt:

A controversy has erupted at a Mississippi junior high school over allegations that a bus driver and a coach threatened students with punishment for saying Barack Obama’s name.

The incidents became public when outraged parents called the studios of WAPT news in Pearl, Miss. Some said their children were threatened by a bus driver with being written up and taken to the principal’s office, others that their children were told by a girls’ basketball coach they would be suspended.”

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By elianita55, November 8, 2008 at 7:25 am Link to this comment

Rogelio, you bring up a valid point. Obama is of mixed race, and this term has statistically been less used in the media than the term “black”. The media’s frequent use of the label “black” when referring to Obama emphasizes the fact that he is non-white, i.e. it highlights his black ancestry rather than his white ancestry. This is in keeping with the phenomenon described by mackTN.

But the difference between the Kenyan-American etiquette you suggest and “black” is a minute one from the media’s standpoint, and also from the general population’s standpoint. Obama has been treated like a non-white all his life, and that’s what makes him a symbolic representative of all types of minorities around the United States.
For more:

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By Fahrenheit 451, November 8, 2008 at 6:15 am Link to this comment

@ TAO Walker;
My wife and I have relocated to S.E. Asia.  Why? Because we felt trapped by our identity as Americans; prisoners of our culture/beliefs/politics/social (ethnocentrism) and felt shock therapy was in order.  Time will tell.  We do know there is no running; we just need some distance.  The U.S. is saturated with mind numbing propaganda and a tacit lack of true solutions.  You offer a way, but some of us just can’t handle the financials of residing in America.  Imagine not being able to live in ones own country.  Health care is the biggie and here, there are real options that don’t bankrupt a couple on a modest income.  We love your posts; keep them coming.  It’s a great day to be alive!

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By troublesum, November 7, 2008 at 12:42 pm Link to this comment

I think it is more accurate to say that we have realized a state of racial etiquette rather than racial equality in America.  Racial profiling is still going to go on in inner cities.  Blacks are going to make up a disproportional per centage of our prison population.  They are going to go on earning less, not living as long, etc., etc.

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By troublesum, November 7, 2008 at 12:14 pm Link to this comment

consider this

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By Piper23740, November 7, 2008 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

Your article was right on. I remember things the same way you do. Even as I rooted for Obama, all through the campaign I was afraid of the Bradley effect. How proud I am of Americans! “The times they are a’changing.”

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By mackTN, November 7, 2008 at 7:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


You completely misunderstand American racial history and the black experience.  For one, most blacks in this country are multi-racial, a peculiar inheritance from assimilation rites of slavery.  But in this country, to be white you had to be free of black blood, meaning if you were known to have black family, you were black and treated as such—no matter where you came from in this world. 

The common experience is not so much slavery as it was the legal and social racism and discrimination that determined a black person’s life—no matter where you came from in the world.  White people didn’t discriminate against only blacks they had been slaves; they didn’t ask that question.  They just did a visual check.

Many blacks who were light enough to pass for white lived as white—but you had to be one or the other in this country, it was that black & white.

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By Rogelio, November 6, 2008 at 10:10 pm Link to this comment

The election I watched for the past few months was one where the media has mostly referred to Obama as an African-American. Rarely, did I hear the media refer to Obama as a multi-racial candidate.

I am Mexican-American. In reference to Obama, should he not be considered Kenyan-American? I do not cared to be called a Latino-American or Hispanic-American. Labeling me with the multitude of Latin American countries borders on stereotyping.

We do not refer to an Irish-American as a European-American. It is a minute detail, but one that should easily be applied to those of African decent. Likewise, Asians (Far Eastern decent) do not care to be labeled as Asians, since Asia also includes the Middle East and Russia. We certainly do not refer to Russians as Asians.

The point I am making about Obama being Kenyan-American is that he does not share the “common” struggles that the African-American community has confronted.

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By Eric, November 6, 2008 at 6:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rogelio, what election were you watching?  I thought the media did anything BUT ignore the fact that Obama is multi-racial.  That fact was put out there at the beginning of the campaign.  I think during the course of 20 months the media decided to focus on the candidates’ words and deeds rather than constantly pointing out their racial makeup.

And isn’t Kenya in Africa?  That would seem to make the African-American label especially appropriate.

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By Rogelio, November 6, 2008 at 5:52 pm Link to this comment

I am euphoric over Obama’s victory. His victory undoubtedly sends a message to the world of what our nation is all about: equal oppportunity, hope, dreams, and an ability to overcome past injustices.

However, I would like to make a few other points regarding Obama. The African-American community overwhelming voted for Obama. However, we need to remember that Obama is not African-American, but Kenyan-American. He does not share the same historical background of: slavery, endemic racism, bigotry, etc…that African-Americans have confronted/confront. Certainly, in his life as a Kenyan-American, I am sure he suffered from bigotry.

For example, there are many Carribean Afro-Hispanos that dislike being compared to African-Americans. The African-American community has embraced Obama even though he does not share their common ancestoral background of oppression.

Also, it saddens me that the media has largely ignored the fact that Obama is multi-racial. Why does the media not say that he is half black or half white? In the coming decades, if not now, the multi-racial population will grow. Many in the African-American community and Anglo community “refuse” to accept others who are bi-racial.

Personally, I voted for Obama because he was the best candidate, and he will prove to be a worthy president.

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By OGP, November 6, 2008 at 5:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What’s Really Amazing is not that America could elect a black man president. It is how little the color of his skin means to the 20-somethings who were the main thrust behind his victory.

To me, who worked for civil rights in the 60s, that means even more.

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By mackTN, November 6, 2008 at 3:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Outraged, I think you misinterpret the joy of black folks over Obama’s election.  The joy is in getting to the point where race won’t be the big deal it used to be.  Sure, black people see a Berlin wall falling finally, but this is not a celebration of blackness with Obama’s election. Just the opposite, it’s a celebration of freedom from the kind of blackness that divided, scared, repelled,limited, determined….its reduction as a symbol of oppression.

I don’t care if my reaction seems childish or foolish, but psychologically I feel liberated from an oppressive history that I carried with me everyday, that I too often relied on to interpret my life.  I feel I can put that away and move on to a different life and perspective.  I feel I can put away my weapons.

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By TAO Walker, November 6, 2008 at 2:45 pm Link to this comment

Having watched for ten thousand odd years as our domesticated Sisters and Brothers’ve staggered and stumbled around in ever diminishing vicious circles here on Turtle Island, and all around the world, us Savages long ago noticed that one of their tormentors’ favorite tricks was changing the “signposts” to create an illusion of linear “progress.”  At a time when the milling herds are getting increasingly skittish and skeptical, a real big “CHANGE” was called-for.

So now many’ve been made to feel once more that americans are marching “forward,” past one of those “markers” that’d long been accepted as “out there somewhere,” but not expected to heave into sight for quite a while yet.  From here in Indian Country, though, with its much more extensive view of theamericandreamscape, it is plain to see that “the election of an African-American man to the U.S. presidency” is just another of those institutional misdirections meant to keep the subject/citizens stuck firmly in their swirling passage down the drain.

This is not a criticism of Barack Obama or those who see in him a reason to hope….all are trapped together in the “funhouse” anyhow.  It is to suggest, however, that so long as the domesticated peoples continue to mistake mere switching of stage-sets for genuine movements in the Song ‘n’ Dance of Life Herownself, those profitting from keeping them locked in-place will continue to service and operate the contraption that makes the entire “pyramid” scam possible….some call it “civilization.”

The “good news” is that the thing itself is falling apart from over-use and deferred maintenance.  The tame people are sure in for a surprise when the “walls” fall down and they find their selves suddenly back in the midst of a free wild landscape of nearly unfathomable dimensions.  The ultimate “bubble” is about to burst, Girls and Boys.


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By dick, November 6, 2008 at 9:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Expect little change. The War Party and the neo-cons are still in control, as is evident by the appointment of Emmanuel as chief-of-staff. He favors more wars in the middle-east, and is an ardent Israel-firster.

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By Purple Girl, November 6, 2008 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

I never know if I should laugh or bitch when I hear I am considered a ‘Boomer’ . I was born in ‘63, 6 months before JFK was assasinated. My mother recounts how the youth were so energized and ignited by Kennedy and even admitted Pres Elect Obama is that same ‘Force’. The same Aspirations, dreams and Call to Servitude for Our country.
That was the mind set when I was conceived and Born, Not WW2. My mother was a young teenager, with 3 older brothers- 2 served in WW2.
Her and my fathers mind was far more influenced from that unlikely contender to High Office- an Irish Catholic (my mother was Irish Protestant, My father an Italian Luthanian Catholic).
They were also influenced by the growing Suburban developments which had larger yards and more spacious homes. Thye saw their older siblings moving outward and wanted the same for themselves- to live in the ‘Burbs’ became the Americna Dream.
I , Like our new president elect, are the younger cousins of the Boomers, yet we have nothing in common. We were born to parents to heeded the Call to not only serve in the military, but to Serve our fellow man. They Taught US well, they instilled in US those Dreams, those aspirations that sense of Duty. And Now we have the First Post Boomer Preident to not only lead US, but to inspire US again.
Pres Elect Obama is the embodiment of this Generation. Perhaps he brings tears to our eyes, because we felt those feelings emminating from our Mothers while in Utero.If babies can Hear music pre birth, why not ‘Ask Not What Your Country can do For You, but what you can do for Your Country’? We have been Born Again. and for the foreseeable future we will answer the Call with “YES WE CAN”!!!
We are not the Boomers, We are the Ones Who have been Screaming against them for the last 3 decades!
Apparently we passed on Our Innate sense of Hope to our children Too…Way to Go Kiddo’s You have Resurrected the Dream!
Here’s You ‘gold Watch’ Boomers it’s time to complete what remains on Your Bucket lists now, We’ll take It from Here!

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By Outraged, November 6, 2008 at 1:20 am Link to this comment

It’s sad, but I have to endorse “nestoffour” here.

As I watched many of the reactions, especially black folks, I empathized with their hope, yet there existed a nagging reality.  That black and white hard core truth of the matter, the one that, irregardless of the ways we attempt to stifle it, will leave us wanting.

I watched their tears and I understood… yet felt they did not.  They, it seems, do not yet understand that the color of their skin, truly is…. immaterial. 

I am a woman, so I attempted to understand in a mindset more akin to my experience.  And I saw only a hollow stump of a reality which should have been a vigorous and healthy tree.  I did not endorse H. Clinton.  I would have liked to.  But she did not represent the things which mattered.  And the things which matter, don’t have a gender, a skin color or any superficial feature.

Historical?  Superficially,... sure.

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By nestoffour, November 6, 2008 at 12:06 am Link to this comment

sure, we’ve come a long way as human beings ... Obama’s win proves that becoming a war-mongering president is possible for whites and non-whites alike.  congratulations and on with the bombing of children.

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