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Minority trail blazers endure a burden others can't understand

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SAN DIEGO -- Many high-achieving African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans know very well what it is like to be the first this or the only that. Breaking down doors and being a trailblazer brings remarkable opportunities that were unimaginable to previous generations.

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But it can also be as much a burden as a blessing. It means having to be extra careful not to make mistakes, and having to be twice as good as anyone else just to be considered their equal. In some organizations, it means feeling as if you have the duty to speak up and present views and perspectives that might otherwise go missing. At the very least, it usually means that you feel an additional pressure to succeed because, if you don't, some narrow-minded folks will assume that the diversity experiment is a bust.

Now take that experience and multiply it by a million and you might start to get a sense for what it must be like for Barack Obama, who - when he is sworn into office this week - will become the nation's first African-American president.

Michelle Obama used to say on the campaign trail that if her husband were elected, it would change everything and the world would be a different place. Well, Barack Obama was elected -- and by a broad coalition of voters of different races, incomes, and ages. And, so far at least, most of the world is not a different place. It is still full of terrorists and tyrants who wish to do harm to Americans, and it's still the No. 1 job of the president to thwart those plans any way he can.

Time will tell whether Obama is making that part of his job harder by pledging to close the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Likewise, it will be interesting to see if Obama reverses course on some of the Bush administration's other policies intended to fight the war on terror -- from domestic wiretapping to speeding up deportations to classifying detainees as "enemy combatants." A change in leadership doesn't change the reality of the threat we face.

But in other ways, the future first lady was right on the money. This country is already different from what it was just a few months ago. Americans have had their faith reaffirmed and their sense of possibility expanded. My young children are going to grow up in a world that is radically different from the one I grew up in -- a world where, when another African-American runs for president, we won't feel compelled to refer to him or her by race, only as just another candidate for president.

Other walls remain, of course. I can't wait to see a Latino on the Supreme Court, an Asian-American secretary of state or a woman president. But one of the biggest walls has already crumbled. Many Americans assume Obama's election will have a kind of domino effect where, in the years to come, other barriers will also fall. After the election, people of all colors told interviewers that they took pride in Obama's victory because they thought it held the promise that America would make a place for them, too. Think of it as opportunity by osmosis.

Not even multimillionaire movie stars were immune. During a recent appearance on Oprah Winfrey's television show, Will Smith remarked that the practice of America hasn't always lived up to the promise of America. Smith talked about how his father and mother had raised him to think that he could accomplish anything in life; it wasn't until Obama came along that he actually believed it.

As Mexican-Americans raised in the 1940s and '50s on a diet of brazen discrimination and limited opportunity, my own parents love this country but they understand perfectly the difference between promise and practice. The day after the election, they could hardly contain their excitement as they tried to explain to my 4-year-old that this meant she could one day grow up to be president. It was the same sort of anything-is-possible message my parents had always instilled in my brother, sister and me. But this was different. This time, it seemed, they really believed it.

And on Tuesday, when they and millions of other Americans watch Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, there will be no denying that America kept its promise.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is navarrette@wctrib.com.

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