From Obama to Skip Gates, 2009 changed racial views

Associated Press | 1/6/2010, 3:20 a.m.

The year began with a harmonious glow at the inauguration of the first black president, as America marked a stunning victory over its racial demons.

“That lasted about a day,” President Barack Obama said two months later. He attributed that to the economic calamity threatening all Americans, but his statement also applied to the notion that all our racial problems had been solved.

The dynamics of race were transformed in 2009 because the most powerful person on Earth was no longer white. But despite that potent symbol – and sometimes because of it – race remained a volatile and often divisive subject.

“It felt like an evolution to me, something that created a paradigm shift,” says Dr. Joy DeGruy, a black author and speaker who focuses on racial healing. “We moved a quantum leap forward.”

Conservative radio host Mike Gallagher calls the change “profound’’ and says there were fewer racial controversies last year than in almost any other during his 30-plus years of radio.

“I get the sense from my audience collectively that there is a sigh of relief, that we’ve made progress this year,” says Gallagher, who is white. “Because I truly believe that good people don’t want to be mired in racial conflict.”

One sign of that progress was Elwin Wilson. Inspired by reaction to the inauguration, he sought out U.S. Rep. John Lewis. They had last met in 1961, when Wilson and other white racists brutally beat Lewis during a Freedom Ride civil rights protest in South Carolina.

Wilson apologized, and Lewis accepted.

“I think it will lead to a great deal of healing,” the black congressman said.

The year held many milestones. George Lopez became the first Latino host of a late-night TV show. Ursula Burns became the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, Xerox. The Indian model Padma Lakshmi starred in commercials for shampoo and hamburgers.

More than 2 million people clicked on a humorous but perceptive YouTube ad for Red House Furniture in High Point, N.C., “where white people and black people buy furniture.”

There were signs that the elusive American “conversation on race” gained a foothold last year.

Jen Wang, co-founder of the race and culture blog Disgrasian, said she used to be discouraged by the reluctance to discuss race.

“Something shifted the day that Obama took office,” she says. “There’s something in the conversation that tells me readers feel like if we discuss it, there’s a chance that there will be some change or progress, or at least you will be heard.”

But there was pain amid the progress.

The disorderly conduct arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a white officer after he forced open the jammed front door of his home seemed like a throwback to an earlier, divided era.

The issue was inflamed when Obama slipped from his race-neutral stance and said that police who arrested Gates had “acted stupidly.” Obama’s poll numbers among whites plunged; he then invited the cop and the professor to meet at the White House.