Race relations back in focus as election returns to South

"There's just this nastiness out there in this country," said Sequoyah Wilson, standing outside North Carolina's state legislature in Raleigh and reflecting on some of the racially-charged controversies the United States has witnessed over the last year, the dpa reported.

He pointed to the uproar over Don Imus, a radio host who called a predominantly African-American women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos," and a 2006 case in New York where policemen shot and killed an unarmed black man the day of his wedding. The three officers were acquitted last month, triggering a wave of protests.

But unlike some in the African-American community, Wilson, a 31- year-old government employee, is not convinced that electing Barack Obama to the White House will have that much of an impact on race relations.

"We all know that any good change is gradual. It doesn't happen overnight," Wilson said. "I don't think that (Obama) can change people's hearts and minds. You can't legislate how people feel."

Ever since Obama emerged as a viable presidential candidate, especially after winning the very first nomination contest in Iowa back in January, African Americans across the country have rallied around his cause.

Some speak of his inspiring call for change and a new kind in politics. Obama, 46, the son of a white mother and Kenyan father, has sought to present himself as a post-racial candidate who can heal the nation's divisions.

Others are more blunt about the stakes in this election.

"I would love to see an African American in office," said Valerie Smith, a 22-year-old college student in Raleigh. "It's about Americans viewing us in a different light, giving us a chance to take powerful jobs like this."

The still tarnished state of race relations in the United States has come back into focus in the last few weeks, as the ongoing battle for the Democratic presidential nomination returns to the nation's South.

North Carolina, where more than 20 per cent of the population is African American, will vote on Tuesday - along with the mid-western state of Indiana. Obama faces Hillary Clinton, the former first lady who is also looking to break barriers by becoming the first female president in US history.

Obama's once double-digit lead in North Carolina has evaporated as the statewide primary has become much tighter than many pundits expected, and the divide between white and African-American voters could be quite stark.

Aside from the spectacle of the primary itself, the re-emergence of Obama's former Chicago pastor has also exposed a bitterness still felt by many African Americans over their treatment in the United States.

Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr last month repeated controversial remarks made in past sermons, including that US policies invited the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that the US government was capable of inventing the AIDS virus and using it against African Americans.

Obama a day later said Wright had given "comfort to those who prey on hate," in a sharp condemnation of the man he once called "like family" and has credited with introducing him to the Christian faith nearly 20 years ago.

But some argue that the minister's words were simply an indication of how unhealed the country's racial wounds remain.

Wright, who was the highly influential pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for more than 30 years until he retired in January, said he hoped the controversy swirling around him would foster a better understanding of the deep traditions of black churches that go all the way back to the days of slavery.

Sunday morning, he pointed out, has been called "the most segregated hour in America" for a reason.

"From what I hear, it seems like (Wright) talked about racism in the United States," said O'Neil Guthrie from Durham, North Carolina. "If he's saying this is how it was, and he's bitter about how it was, then I can't blame the man."

Some of that bitterness is reflected in skepticism over whether the United States is capable of placing an African American in the highest office in the land.

In an opinion poll by the weekly Newsweek, 19 per cent of people said the country was not ready to elect an African-American president. More than half said they believed some voters have "reservations" about a black leader, even if they are not willing to express them publicly.

Marcus Roberts, 32, from Salisbury, North Carolina, said Obama's success in the 2008 election would be a milestone he never expected to witness in his lifetime.

"It would mean a lot to the African-American community, even though he has to be the president of everybody."

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