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North Lawndale Men

Todd Johnson/MEDILL

Darrius Caston (far right) said the high expectations for Obama come with the nature of his position.  He said he hopes Obama can win a second term.

Obama election invigorates black lives, but doesn't end struggles, some caution

by Todd Johnson
Nov 20, 2008

Charlotte Thomas

Todd Johnson/MEDILL

Charlotte Thomas, 52, said she voted for Obama with her entire family election morning. She said Obama has the ability to capture any crowd with his speeches. 

Brandon Lenore

Todd Johnson/MEDILL

Brandon Lenore, who coaches at North Lawndale College Prep, said Obama's childhood circumstances are inspiration for his kids.

Social worker Charlotte Thomas said she loves to ask people how they are doing since the presidential election.

“Good,” they normally respond.

“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.”

Despite the euphoria among blacks over Obama’s election, what is unclear is the impact his presidency will have on many African-Americans’ every day lives.

“Obama’s election ends one phase of the black struggle, and it begins another,” said Clarence Lang, assistant professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Access to quality education, high incarceration rates among blacks ... these issues, these black issues, don’t go away overnight.”

Some African-Americans said an Obama presidency reflects the values of working class people and that change can be realized at the workplace.

“It’s about job security with me,” said Billy Avery, a letter carrier for 25 years. “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.”

Avery works in the Loop, but he used to deliver mail in Austin, an area he calls “one of the roughest areas for blacks in Chicago.” He said he understands why pride is so high among African-Americans, but “problems are problems.”

“I’m a ‘60s child, so with Barack, pride is the first thing,” Avery said. “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.”

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.

“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.’”

Pitfalls of emotional investment

Obama’s candidacy signaled new possibilities for many proud African-American 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 is a sociology professor and director of urban studies at Stanford University. He said 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,” McAdam said. “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.”

Don’t say that to Charlotte Thomas.

“He doesn’t have to do anything for me,” she said. “He’s already done so much for African-Americans by just being elected. But he will do what he promised for the nation. He’s a hard worker and he’ll have help.”

McAdam said he is not understating the historical impact of Obama’s election or support among African-Americans, more than 90 percent of whom voted for Obama, according to exit polls. He said he 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,” said McAdam, who coined the term “cognitive liberation” to describe this. “But Obama has to hold the center as president. There’s a certain danger in the raised expectations by any particularly marginalized groups who have progressive agendas: African-Americans, gay/lesbians, etc.”

What ‘no excuses’ means in schools

Obama’s victory has also put more focus on the achievement gaps facing black students, particularly young black males. With an African-American finally elected president, some educators are raising their expectations for their students.

Brandon Lenore is the director of student activities at North Lawndale College Prep. He offers incentives, such as college trips and scholarships, for male students who perform well in and out of the classroom.

He said Obama’s election is quickly 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 black students echo his attitude toward achievement.

“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.”

Richard Townsell is the chief operating officer at Bethel New Life, Inc., where he oversees programs that assist mostly low-income African-American families on the West Side.

“[African-Americans] have to understand that there are systems and structures in place in society that still keep people out,” Townsell said. “[Obama’s] election has broken a ceiling, but I have no illusions. We as citizens need to roll up our sleeves because progress takes time.”

Other professors said the “no excuses” talk about school achievement may be an offshoot of a more problematic assertion: that African-Americans have now come full circle from slavery.

“One man alone cannot transform the relations of power in our society,” said Robin Hayes, professor of ethnic studies and political science at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. “You can work really hard but be in a public school system that doesn’t give you the skills you need to compete at the next level.”

“And that has nothing to do with excuses.”

North Lawndale 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, is a sophomore at North Lawndale. He said he dreams of attending a good college and then playing in the NFL.

Obama has inspired his approach to school.

“If Obama can become the president, I can do my homework and I can handle school,” Stewart 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?”

Building hope for minorities outside the U.S.

Widespread hope is not exclusive to African-Americans in the United States.

Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford University, said the greatest impact of Obama’s election will be felt internationally.

“I think sometimes we focus too much on the historical significance within the U.S.,” said Carson, who is also the director of Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and taught courses in France last year. “It would be difficult for minorities from Senegal or Algeria born in France to aspire to be president of France. But now they’ve seen the model. And that’s Obama.”

Lenore does not want his students at North Lawndale to limit their goals to rapping or entertaining. He said he wants them to measure their success by what they do, not by what they have.

"In short, you can't let anyone's process impede your progress," Lenore said. "Obama's victory has given me reassurance as a professional. It means hard work and believing in something greater than yourself has its rewards."

To Lenore, an Obama presidency can change perceptions and realities in a struggling neighborhood like North Lawndale.

"It's opening minds up now and that's positive," he said. "It can change the realities out here in [North Lawndale] as long as we're having the right conversation about progress."