Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Black men hope Obama presidency shatters racial stereotypes

Bryan Ford sees a lot of himself in Barack Obama. Like the president-elect, the San Jose State sophomore was raised by a single mother. And, like Obama's long fight to the White House, Ford says being a young black man in America has often meant defying others' low expectations.

"I've been searched by the cops just for being black, for standing on the street with my friends," said the 19-year-old student, who also recalls being tailed by security guards in shopping malls. "It happened all the time."

Black men endure painful stereotypes in American popular culture, which often depicts them "singing, rapping, scoring a touchdown, dunking a basketball, hitting a home run or committing a crime," according to the group YAAMS, Young African Americans Against Media Stereotypes.

But now, and for at least the next four years, the most quoted, photographed and broadcast face and voice will be that of a Harvard University-educated black man. It is the face Americans will turn to during national crises for information and reassurance. At the annual State of the Union address, it is a black man who will outline the goals and successes of the most powerful country on earth.

The historic significance of America electing its first black president is profound. But beyond the poignant symbolism, many African-Americans hope Obama's election may begin to shatter deeply entrenched stereotypes.

"The most famous black man in America isn't dribbling Advertisementa ball or clutching a microphone," writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in a recent essay for Time magazine. "He has no prison record. He has not built a career on four-letter words."

The significance isn't lost on 14-year-old Jordan Brown, who attends Santa Clara's Wilcox High School.

"Obama being elected shows that black people can be smart and have some class," Jordan said. "People expect black people to be athletes. Like we can run fast and play basketball, but we're not smart. Now they see that black people can be smart, and people voted for Obama because he is smart."

Many scholars note that the Obama family — his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha — is even more powerful than the image of Obama alone.

'Whole package'

"With Obama we get the whole package. He is a dedicated husband and father, and his love for Michelle and their children is front and center," said Patricia Turner, a vice provost and professor of African-American studies at the UC Davis who wrote "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influences on Culture."

"Nuclear black families are almost never depicted in popular culture. I hope that now, because of the Obamas, we'll begin to see more black couples and families depicted in film and television," she said.

Turner notes that racial stereotypes often persist for generations and take years of active advocacy work to overcome. "Stereotypes are extraordinarily tenacious,'' she said. "Once they are out there, it's a virus that lingers."

Some stereotypes are reinforced by real-life challenges. In California, nearly 42 percent of black students drop out of high school. A 2008 study by the Pew Center for the States also found that one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.

Matthew Morgan, a senior at San Jose State University, said Obama's victory gives him a new sense of personal responsibility.

'No more excuses'

"For perceptions of black men to change, it's going to depend on how we carry ourselves,'' he said after an African-American history course this week. "I'm proud to say that I feel like I have a lot of responsibility on me, on us as a people. Obama needs support, and we all have to step up to the plate and get involved in our communities. There are no more excuses.''

Frank Gilliam, dean of the UC Los Angeles School of Public Affairs and a leading scholar of racial politics and mass media, said the idea of a "sea change in race relations is probably naive.'' But the fact that a black man is now the boss — of the United States — will have a huge impact on not just African-Americans but whites and other ethnic groups as well. An entire generation will come of age with a black man in charge.

"It's not going to be any easier for me to get a cab in Manhattan," Gilliam said. "But we're all going to experience a black man in the ultimate authority position, and a black family is on the way to the White House. Racial stereotypes will stay with us, but we're chipping away at it."

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