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A city celebrates

Cities | The election of the first African-American president brings hope of racial reconciliation in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON-Streets in Washington, D.C., erupted in cheers and honks when Barack Obama was announced the next president of the United States.

The district, which votes overwhelmingly Democratic, felt like the Super Bowl was in town, and its beloved Redskins had just won. Every restaurant and pub was full, police blocked streets off, and partying went on until the early morning hours. Drummers converged on 14th Street to thump out their pep for Barack Obama's win. The Democratic National Committee party at the Hyatt burst with chants: "Yes we can!"

In the Capital Hilton, where the Republican National Committee was holding its gathering, the once-packed ballroom covered in bunting thinned out before the results were announced. People wearing McCain-Palin buttons stood frozen before screens playing John McCain's concession speech. Some spent the evening out on the sidewalk, smoking. Young women staffers looked somber and deflated, wearing Palin's trademark red high heels. There was no doubt that the American people had rejected the Republican Party, and everyone in the room felt it.

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"You can't name the leader of the Republican Party," said Michael Willis at the RNC party. "We're not saying anything, not doing anything. We're not fighting."

"There's gonna be some soul searching," added Brian Waldrup.

As the evening wore on, Republicans climbed into cabs and slunk home.

But Obama supporters leaned out of cabs they were riding in and shouted, some crying. Men ran the streets with their shirts off, banging pots and pans, giving high fives to strangers.

In a city with a history of racial division, the election of the first African-American president showed the marks of racial reconciliation, but some barriers still exist.

Fifty-seven percent of the District of Columbia is African American, according to 2006 U.S. Census data, compared to 13 percent nationally. The suburbs of the district are majority white, continuing urban stereotypes of an African-American inner city.

At the RNC party downtown, the only African Americans immediately visible in the room were reporters. How about those city race relations?

"It's not an issue," said Willis.

The NAACP had an exclusive party at another restaurant with few white people, which is logical since the organization is for African Americans.

Many felt that Obama's election might bring better relationships between blacks and whites in the city.

Quin Lispcome, who is African American and lives in a neighborhood in the northeast part of the city, said he believes Obama can influence city politics and race relations.

"My hope is that they will improve," he said. "With the influx of like-minded people in his administration, I think that will help foster a change in the city as well."

Another woman in the neighborhood, Cherri Tilghman, said she hopes Obama's administration will help change more basic needs in the city, like getting kids off the street.

"All the young guys need to carry their butts to school," she said.

Larry Gill, from the same neighborhood, said it takes more than the election of an African-American president to change the city.

"You can't undo eight years of what we've had, and the racial issues in this country overnight," he said. "You can only do so much in four years."

Gill said D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty helped make significant progress in racial reconciliation in the city when he was elected in 2006. Fenty won, like Obama, over veteran politicians and has shaken up city government.

"This is a start," he said, pointing to Obama's popular vote and the small slice of that vote that came from African Americans. "It took a lot more coordination among the races than anyone would want to admit."

The coordination among races was evident at least on the streets of Washington on election night, whether it continues is a question people in D.C. neighborhoods are still asking.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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