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Obama’s racial impact on U.S. debated

Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, February 5, 2009

Last night, students and university staff members met in the Coleman-Morse Lounge for an interracial forum called “Where Do We Go From Here,” which discussed the impact of the election of the nation’s first African American president.

Participants included members of Wabruda, the male African American club on campus, Shades of Ebony, the female African American club on campus, Sisters of Nefertiti, an African American club at Saint Mary’s and staff members from the University Counseling Center, said Saint Mary’s senior Melissa Gates, who facilitated the discussion.

Gates began the discussion by posing the question, “Where do we go from here as African Americans after America has elected its first black president? And also … does this change anything for everyday people, [like] us?”

“I think one thing that we have to understand, since Barack Obama is in office that doesn’t mean that we are in a post-racial America,” Senior Matthew Tipton, president of Wabruda, said. “It’s something that gives people confidence for change. It’s a symbol for us in America going a long way.”

Junior and co-president of Shades of Ebony, Danielle Keller agreed that Obama can be seen as a symbol of hope, but warned against relying on Obama to solve all problems.

“There is a danger of saying look what he can do for us. It turns into a Messiah complex. What is really important at a local level is that people will be inspired by him,” Keller said.

The quality that makes Obama so inspiring is how much people are able to relate to him, Jennifer Kestner from the University Counseling Center said.

“He’s so relatable. Little kids can see themselves in him. You know, he’s shooting basketball with anyone in a pick up game. That provides some hope that it’s not just some suit and tie that represents the presidency… He represents a family man. [He] came from a poor background and has made it. That provides more hope,” she said.

Keller said that this image that people can relate to has made it “cool” to be a community organizer, because Obama was a community organizer and it has become “cool” to be black.

“It’s cool to be black because the president is black, not because my favorite football player is black, or because I like this rapper and he’s black. And as a black person, it’s good to hear that,” Keller said.

Gates said that because of Obama’s image, he “provides another face for black men,” and alternative to the stereotypical black men in jail.

However, Keller said, “I can easily see people seeing Obama as the exception rather than the rule … and saying well how many black men are in jail? Obama alone can’t change the stereotype.”

Participants in the discussion agreed that to win the battle against racism and stereotypes will take more than just having a black man as president, and that blacks have not yet broken through the glass ceiling of racism that has kept them down in the past.

“It’s been scratched,” Tipton said, but it has not been broken. No one in the forum voiced a disagreement.

The forum ended with a discussion of what it would take to be successful in breaking the glass ceiling. Keller said that the only way to break that glass ceiling is for individual blacks to have success.

She said that in order to be successful in her life, she tells herself, “don’t be late to class, don’t be the one who needs help. Be the perfect student so no one can say ‘oh, she’s here because she’s black or oh, she’s not getting it because she’s black.'”

Gates said that success will happen when blacks have the same opportunities for things like housing and education.

“For me, success for black people is if people stop asking me if I’m here on an athletic scholarship. I’ve been told to my face, you are a product of affirmative action. That would be a success if that stopped happening,” Keller said.

Tipton added that he thinks blacks have been successful so far in what they have accomplished. Keller agreed.

“Look at the strides we’ve made in such a short period of time. We have parents who remember the civil rights movement,” she said.

Keller summed up the sentiment of the forum by saying, “in some sense, we need to pat ourselves on the back and say good job, but the work isn’t done.”