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Anxiety, candor as black students anticipate results

on November 4, 2008


Nov. 4 — In their classrooms and offices, they might not have had the chance to say how they really felt about today’s historic election.

But on Monday night, a group of black graduate students at UC Berkeley candidly spoke their minds in anticipation of possibly seeing an African-American ascend to the country’s highest post, if Sen. Barack Obama defeats Sen. John McCain for president.

They asked one another a range of questions meant to spark meaningful discussion about issues that have come up during the election, and that have been on the minds of a lot of people—If Obama wins, will he swing to the right? How has the hype surrounding Obama affected black Republicans? If McCain wins, will people give up on this country? But the conversation mostly brought out opinions on race, and how an Obama presidency would challenge one of the country’s most taboo topics.

“Part of the spirit is excitement because it’s a really important time in history,” said Krystal Strong, 23, a doctoral student in anthropology, who is co-chairwoman of the Black Graduate Student Association on campus. “But we can’t all assume we’re all on the same tip just because we’re all black grads.”

These same sentiments are being shared in circles of black people all across the nation. Both excitement and apprehension are high among some, while others have just been waiting patiently for the outcome of today’s race.

Interest in the presidential election has even grown outside U.S. borders. “I have been hearing from friends in France that 93 percent of the French people want Obama for president,” said Charles Henry, a professor of African-American studies at UC Berkeley, who studies black politics. But he said to them, jokingly, “Please don’t let the word sneak out,” because it could give the American public the wrong impression.

In a less joking manner, Henry said he, like many black people in this country, has been having mixed feelings about the possibility of having a black president.

For one, he said the changes Obama would make if he were elected would probably be only modest at best. He likely wouldn’t appoint a black secretary of state or many black cabinet members, for example, Henry said, out of fear that some white people might think he is favoring a black-only political agenda.

On the other hand, Henry said, having a black president would be a powerful symbol because, with Michelle Obama and the Obamas’ two daughters, it would also be the first time three black women have that much access to the White House.

“To me, it would be startling to have three black women in the White House because you picture the White House with Jackie Kennedy and the likes … a very white kind of space,” he said. “It’s one thing to have a black president, but when you imagine the first black family…” his voice trailing off in deep thought before he finished his sentence.

At Marcus Books on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, the East Bay’s only black-owned book store, the mood has already been celebratory, said store manager Blanche Richardson.

Many of her customers voted early, she said, and there hasn’t been much talk lately about the election—mostly because they knew whom they had already voted for. Even the mood in the store had already been set by the specially-made fliers displayed at the front desk with a picture of Obama and the words “Congratulations President Obama” inscribed on them.

The gathering of the black graduate students who showed up on Monday to discuss their thoughts on the election was a meeting of the minds to release all the bottled-up emotions they have been feeling leading up to today’s election.

The group talked briefly about some of the propositions on the ballot, but that conversation subsided when everyone settled in. Then, almost right from the jump, the conversation centered on a topic that was raised frequently during the election: Is Obama black enough?

That question, most agreed, was a ridiculous argument doctored from the beginning of the campaign to discredit Obama’s character.

But the group didn’t let the topic rest there.

When Obama first took the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 with his speech proclaiming the United States as a country that is not divided, Strong said she had reservations about what he initially meant, especially since she had grown up experiencing how race can often be a very polarizing issue.

But in recent years she has warmed to Obama’s thinking, she said, and now understands what he means when he says something like what he said in his hailed speech on race relations in March—that he believes the United States “is more than the sum of its parts—that out of many, we are truly one.”

“In Obama’s case, it seems like a benefit that he wasn’t born here,” she said. “You can’t locate him in Detroit or in the ‘hood. He was raised by his mom from Kansas and his dad was from Kenya,” and he went to elite schools. So, in a way, she added, he himself transcends certain notions about black people.

Then, someone posed the question, “Are most people who support John McCain just plain racist?” which broke the solemn tone of the evening.

In a very serious tone, Desmond Torkornoo, 21, a graduate student in industrial engineering and operations research, said he thought that was “the most stupidest logic I have ever heard in my life.”

He asked the group how other people defined racism. But he didn’t get any immediate responses, to his disappointment.

Kwasi Apori, 32, a doctoral student in bioengineering, said he wouldn’t label someone a racist simply because of which candidate he chooses. But then he brought up the recent statement made by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh claiming that Gen. Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because he was black. And wasn’t that an example, he asked, of the racism that has been prevalent throughout the entire campaign?

“That’s devaluing the ability to intellectually reason and come to a conclusion as a black person,” Apori said. “It’s a very clear example of some people feeling that we are this monolithic bloc without reason. And I find that very troubling.”

Martin Ricard is following a group of black graduate students on the UC Berkeley campus for their pre- and post-election reactions to the presidential race. The next report will follow after Wednesday, when the group plans to meet again to either “pop bottles,” as some have said, or use a shoulder to cry on if Obama doesn’t win.||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


  1. […] to get their pre- and post-election reactions to the presidential race. This is a follow-up to the first story published Tuesday. « Polls closing, a dogged rush to make one vote […]

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  3. Antique Cabinets on June 22, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Well, america’s most taboo topics has been defeated since Obama wins the election by a convincing margin.

  4. Elena on October 25, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don

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