Billy Avery has been a letter carrier for 25 years, at one time delivering in Austin, an area he calls “one of the roughest areas for blacks in Chicago.” He now works in the Loop.
The Obama-supporter, like many other black Americans, is still beaming about Barack’s win and the possibilities his election will have on improving his life. But some blacks, though equally euphoric, are unclear on exactly what impact Obama’s presidency will have on their lives.
“I have a feeling that Obama, who came from nothing, will have my back when times get hard. So I bring that to work with me,” said Avery. “I’m a ’60s child, so with Barack, pride is the first thing. I think of my grandparents, who grew up in Jackson [Mississippi], and the dirt roads, living in a shack. My wife was in tears when Barack won. But discrimination still hasn’t gone away.”
Clarence Lang, an assistant professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explained that while Obama’s election ends one phase of the black struggle, and it begins another. Lang said an Obama administration is capable of the same types of social changes put forth by Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but it will not come automatically.
“Access to quality education, high incarceration rates among blacks…these issues-these black issues-don’t go away overnight. It will take the same people that organized to get [Obama] elected to push him on issues that matter to so many African-Americans,” Lang said. “This is not the time [for African-Americans] to sit back and say ‘we have arrived.'”
Too much emotional investment?
Obama’s candidacy signaled new possibilities for many proud black voters. But there may be some drawbacks to an overwhelming investment of emotion in a particular politician or leader, according to some experts.
Doug McAdam, a sociology professor and director of urban studies at Stanford University, warns that the optimism created by Obama’s campaign could fall flat if his administration is unsuccessful in delivering policy change or economic improvement.
“There’s a real potential for disillusionment or renewed despair two years into his administration. And beyond this disillusionment, it’s possible down the road for many to call for the end to programs, such as affirmative action, because Obama’s in office,” McAdam said.
But don’t say that to Charlotte Thomas. A social worker for 10 years in the Garfield Park neighborhoods, Thomas said she loves to ask people how they are doing since the presidential election. “Good,” is the normal response.
“That’s it?” Thomas often asks before pressing them to come up with something better. To her, the election of the nation’s first black president should elicit a more joyous response from everyone, especially African-Americans.
“For so long, we’ve heard: ‘we black, we this, we can’t rise above, can’t get a job,'” said Thomas, who has worked to help black families in Garfield Park for the last 10 years. “But it can be done, it’s proven. Look at Obama. Look at what he did.”
But Thomas isn’t looking for Obama to do anything her personally, saying he’s already done enough for black Americans by just getting elected.
“But he will do what he promised for the nation. He’s a hard worker and he’ll have help,” she said.
McAdam, though, stressed he’s not understating the historical impact of Obama’s election, or the more than 90 percent of support he garnered among black voters. McAdam puts Obama’s victory into context with social movements.
“Anytime groups who feel they have been marginalized have a sense of collective action, there’s bound to be shared optimism,” he said, coining the term “cognitive liberation” to describe this belief. “But Obama has to hold the center as president. There’s a certain danger in the raised expectations by any particularly marginalized group who have progressive agendas: African-Americans, gay/lesbians, etc.”
Impact on student
Obama’s victory has also put more focus on the achievement gaps facing black students, particularly young black males. With a black finally elected president, some educators are raising their expectations for their students.
Brandon Lenore, director of student activities at North Lawndale College Prep, offers incentives to his students, such as college trips and scholarships for males who perform well in and out of the classroom.
To him, Obama’s election is breaking down the “excuse barrier” for school achievement and success.
“I work with kids who sometimes feel as though hope is lost or that things will not change in their communities,” said Lenore, who also coaches North Lawndale’s baseball and bowling teams. “Barack came from similar situations as these kids; not having his father around. My students can now say, ‘somebody that looks just like me can have the highest office.'”
Some of Lenore’s students echo his sentiment.
“Any African-American can make it as long as they put their mind to it,” said Darrius Caston, an 18-year-old senior. “There’s crime in my community, but it might reduce under Obama. You never know.”
North Lawndale College Prep boasts a 90-percent senior graduation rate, but its numbers clash with the overall 40-percent graduation rates among black males in Chicago Public Schools. Antonio Stewart, 16, a sophomore at North Lawndale, said he dreams of attending a good college and then playing in the NFL. Obama, he added, has inspired his approach to school.
“If Obama can become the president, I can do my homework and I can handle school,” he said. “People say Obama can’t change this or change that, but they don’t know him. How do you know he can’t do it?”