For black men, a redefining moment?
Hakeem Holloway may be a classically trained musician who has played with orchestras around the world, but when he crosses an L.A. city street wearing his typical uniform of jeans and a hoodie, white women have been known to eye him, a black man, and clutch their purses more tightly to their sides.
Frank Gilliam, the dean of UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, sometimes flies first class. When he does, white passengers often ask Gilliam, who is black, if he’s a record producer -- if they talk to him at all.
Even as millions of black Americans revel in Barack Obama’s victory and plan trips to his inauguration that are turning into pilgrimages, many still wonder if this transformative moment in American politics will truly transform perceptions of black men. How much, if at all, they ask, will Obama’s victory shatter that glass ceiling?
The country may have become accustomed to seeing and hearing people of color populating various levels of power in almost all professions, but many people still cling to images that can be stubborn to erase. Is the prospect of a black man being ferried around in a presidential motorcade enough to curtail racial profiling of black drivers -- or as blacks mordantly call it, the crime of “DWB,” driving while black?
Holloway, a 31-year-old double bassist with a master’s in music performance from USC, says one problem for African Americans is that success often blinds people to color -- in the wrong way.
“We have plenty of black comedians, actors, athletes,” Holloway said. “And plenty of time, everybody regards those people as not black. Michael Jordan? ‘He’s not black. He’s Michael Jordan.’ Barack Obama? ‘He’s not black. He’s Barack Obama.’ ”
Murrell Garr Jr., associate pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Yorba Linda, expresses the hope that many feel: “As black men, we feel we have a voice now. We’ve been crying out in the wilderness. We have skills, qualities. Now people will give an ear to what we’re saying.’ ”
In the past, whites often did not listen, instead projecting their own racial anxieties. “The image of the black man is fear,” said Damian Thompson, 35, a self-employed graphic designer.
“I think Barack changes that and brings us the respect we deserve. There’s a bunch of Baracks. We just don’t get to be seen that way.”
Others couple hopefulness with skepticism about the ability of an Obama presidency to change deeply ingrained racial perceptions. Gilliam, for one, has seen times of national fellowship come and go.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he boarded a plane in Dallas alongside a Texan in cowboy boots who he suspects wouldn’t have paid him any notice at another time. Instead, “He said, ‘It’s you and me, partner. If something happens, you and me make a move for the door.’ ”
That solidarity faded, though. Maybe this time, a new expansion in perspective will be permanent. Or maybe it will just be a temporary, feel-good moment: “People felt bad and this makes them feel better.”
Almost every African American man has an anecdote, if not a dozen, about the insults they’ve endured merely because they are black.
Don Sanders, 55, an orthopedic surgeon who practices in the South Bay, has experienced the sting of being black in America. In Las Vegas, when he attends medical conferences, he often can’t hail a cab.
“They probably wouldn’t pick up Barack Obama,” he said.
And he had plenty of encounters with the police when he was younger.
“I couldn’t count the number of times I was stopped in my 20s while I was at UCLA,” he said.
During the years in which he earned undergraduate, master’s and medical degrees at the Westwood campus, “I was arrested, taken to jail, put in jail overnight, accused of participating in a burglary. My favorite was being stopped for being black in Westwood. I said, ‘What am I being stopped for?’. . . . He said, ‘Well, you know most of the crime in Westwood is being committed by young black men just like you.’ ”
Black men in the rarefied high ranks of business are accustomed to being, well, not perceived at all. When Broadway Federal Bank President and Chief Executive Paul Hudson attends a meeting of banking chiefs, there are maybe two African Americans in the room.
“I’m really not acknowledged,” he said. “It’s almost like I’m invisible.” It’s not entirely the fault of his white colleagues, he says. “I still don’t feel comfortable in white environments.”
Some black men worry that discomfort could even increase as an Obama presidency fosters the perception among some whites that racism no longer exists, dispelled magically Nov. 4.
Warner Brothers executive Chaz Fitzhugh, 53, who is black, earned undergraduate and MBA degrees from Harvard and has always counted conservative and liberal whites among his friends.
“The message I’ve heard from my conservative friends loud and clear is, ‘OK, you guys got what you want, so stop your whining,’ ” said Fitzhugh, who managed a good-natured chuckle even though he admitted the comments annoy him a bit.
“The perception will be that racism is essentially over and done -- and that if you screw up, it’s all on you,” Fitzhugh said. “It’s true in some ways, but naive in a lot more.”
Even as all these images come into play, changing as the weeks go by, certainly the most indelible will be those that Obama and his family cast -- starting with their appearance onstage in Chicago’s Grant Park last week.
The world will watch intently to see what the Obamas eat and what they read, how they dress and how they decorate the White House, said James Fugate, the co-owner of EsoWon Books in Leimert Park. They’ll be the First Family, lighting the national Christmas tree and, inadvertently or not, educating the public about and reshaping perceptions of African Americans.
“They’ll be trendsetters nationally and internationally,” said Fugate, who had a front-row seat to Obama’s rise. In 1995, when Fugate hosted a book-signing for the fledgling writer-politician’s “Dreams From My Father,” 10 people showed up. In 2006, when Fugate’s store co-sponsored a book-signing for Obama’s “Audacity of Hope,” more than 800 people flocked to the event, held at the California African-American Museum.
“They’ll be the American family,” Fugate said. “I remember once hearing someone say he didn’t know that black people celebrated Thanksgiving. Now the country will find out that black families are just like every other American family.”
Some say the greatest effect will be on young black men.
“When Michael Jordan shaved his head, that took off, and now everyone does it,” said David L. Evans, an African American and a senior admissions officer for Harvard College. With Obama in office, Evans believes a new tone may be set. For black youngsters who want to be studious “and would like to dress a certain way -- but have been pressured to drop their pants down a few inches -- they will have a kind of a rock to which to hold.”
Sanders, the orthopedic surgeon, wonders how long it will take for the effect of an Obama presidency to trickle down to city streets and begin to dispel social stigmas. But he, too, adds a note of hope:
“My nieces and young people who are in the 30-and-under crowd are much more colorblind,” he said. “And that generation is beginning to speak.”