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Some Black Leaders Say Dream Realized, Focus Now On Work

Dianne Hart and Marcus Wheeler are both Florida delegates. Said Wheeler, of President Obama: "I would have the same expectation for any president that I have for him."
Liz Halloran
Dianne Hart and Marcus Wheeler are both Florida delegates. Said Wheeler, of President Obama: "I would have the same expectation for any president that I have for him."

Over the past four years, the presidential narrative has shifted for African-Americans like Louisiana state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith of Baton Rouge.

"I'm 66 years old," said Smith, at an event Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., for black state legislators here for the Democratic National Convention. "And before 2008, I didn't think I'd live to see a dream come true."

Barack Obama's election as president four years ago was an enormous milestone in the nation's often halting march toward equality, and a realized American dream for many African-Americans. This time, it feels different, said Smith and others we interviewed at the legislators' wine and hors d'oeuvres gathering in the city's Harvey B. Gantt Center, named for the man who became the city's first African-American mayor in 1983.

In 2008, Obama felt like theirs, said Smith, a convention delegate, who was sporting an "Obama Y'all" button. "Now, he's not there just for people who look like me — he's for all Americans, from all walks of life, all shapes, colors and sizes," she said.

In two days, Obama will again accept his party's nomination.

"It does feel different for me," said Smith. "This time my biggest concern is making sure we get voters out."

Her comments echoed an overarching theme we heard from others at the event: Obama is also president for Americans they felt were not reflected at last week's largely white Republican National Convention, including advocates for women's reproductive rights, Latinos fighting for immigration reform and the DREAM Act, and gay rights activists.

"We've lived the dream, now we have to do the work," said Marcus Wheeler, 36, a NASA engineer and Florida convention delegate. "I would have the same expectation for any president that I have for him."

"People of any color want to go to work, want good jobs," he said. "We need to keep the ball rolling."

This how Oregon state Rep. Lew Frederick, 60, of Portland, characterized conversations among African-Americans at this convention: "Race, culture, economic status and gender are issues now fueling a lot of the discussion here."

That doesn't mean that Obama's race isn't still in play in this campaign, and some expressed frustration at what they see as GOP efforts to portray the president as somehow not American.

"What's the slogan they're using — 'Take Our Country Back'?" said Dianne Hart, 57, of Tampa, Fla. "From what? A black man?"

Kentucky state Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville.
Liz Halloran / NPR
Kentucky state Rep. Darryl Owens of Louisville.

"I know racism; I've lived through it," said Hart, president of the Hillsborough, Fla., County Democratic black caucus. "It is alive and well."

Voter ID efforts and the characterization of Obama's tweaking of welfare work programs to accommodate requests from governors — both Democrats and Republicans — are manifest of a tone, an atmosphere that state Rep. Darryl Owens, 74, of Louisville, Ky., says has driven race relations backward since Obama's election.

"Many people thought the country was changing, and changing too fast," he said of Obama's election four years ago. "We're seeing a lot of white middle-class people voting against their own self-interest because they feel the nation has changed too much — an African-American in the White House, gay marriage."

But for Greenville, S.C., County Councilwoman Xanthene Norris, 83, this year is still filled with hope.

"We have struggled through the years," said Norris. "We are supporting President Obama not because he's a black president, but because he's a great president."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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