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For black men, a redefining moment?

African American males wonder whether Obama's election can truly transform how they are perceived.

November 12, 2008|Carla Hall and Marjorie Miller | Hall and Miller are Times staff writers.
  • James Fugate, owner of EsoWon Books in Leimert Park, celebrates Obama's presidential win with another local business owner. "They?ll be trendsetters nationally and internationally," Fugate says of the Obamas.
James Fugate, owner of EsoWon Books in Leimert Park, celebrates Obama's… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

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.

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