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From Obama to Skip Gates, 2009 changed racial views

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

In May, three white teens in Shenandoah, Pa., were acquitted of the most serious charges in the beating death of Luis Ramirez, an illegal Mexican immigrant. The case became a rallying cry for Latino activists who called it part of a rising tide of anti-Hispanic hate crimes. Federal hate-crime charges were filed against two of the teens in December.

Latino groups also demanded the ouster of CNN host Lou Dobbs for his anti-immigration rhetoric, and he resigned in November. Another resignation was a white justice of the peace in Louisiana who had refused to marry an interracial couple, citing concern for their future children.

Asian groups were angered after teen star Miley Cyrus was photographed pulling her eyes into a slanted position, then said people were trying to make “something out of nothing.”

After Sonia Sotomayor was nominated in May to be the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, critics called her racist for a past “wise Latina” statement about the role judges’ backgrounds can play in their work.

The remark dominated her contentious confirmation hearings. Race had once again become a wedge – but with a new twist, as white senators voiced fears of unfair treatment at the hands of a powerful Puerto Rican.

The idea was connected to an argument that gained traction this year: that Obama’s election proved the playing field had finally been leveled, and that the biggest remaining barrier to black progress was black attitudes.

“It is not white racism that plays the deciding role in success among minorities anymore,” says Edward Blum, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies civil rights policy issues.

The Supreme Court appeared to agree in June, when it ruled 5-4 that a group of white firefighters were unfairly denied promotions because no blacks performed well enough on the exam. (Sotomayor had ruled against the white firefighters on a lower court, citing precedent that said a test is discriminatory if it had a disparate racial impact.)

“This is just proof positive that people should be treated as individuals and not statistics,” said Frank Ricci, the firefighter whose name was on the lawsuit.

But statistics on high black unemployment were the primary evidence used by the Congressional Black Caucus in December when it demanded that Obama provide special assistance to jobless blacks.

Obama responded as he had since the campaign: focusing on the overall economy, health care and education as the best way to help minorities. It was a theme he also sounded in July when he volunteered some rare comments about race at the annual convention of the NAACP, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary.

“Even as we inherit extraordinary progress ... we know that too many barriers still remain,” Obama said in his speech. But despite these barriers, he said later, “Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.”

That same day, Gates, the Harvard scholar, was sitting in a jail cell.

(Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press.)