Being black: one year later

One year ago, the first black man to be inaugurated as president of the United States stood on the steps of the Capitol and changed history as we knew it.

Along the National Mall and just blocks away on campus, students reveled in the event. Now, a question that reverberated across the country has also come to rest at GW. Has having a black man in the White House changed the position of blacks in America and, in a smaller sense, at GW?

Ryan Mitchell, co-president of the Black Student Union, said he has noticed an increased interest in forging connections between BSU and other student groups.

“From the day Obama got elected, there were a lot more e-mails between organizations like College Democrats and the [Jewish Students Association], saying they wanted to get involved and co-sponsor with us. I think it’s a motivation and reason for people to reach out and find common ground,” Mitchell said.

The newfound interest in collaboration from a diverse array of student groups came as a boon to the BSU, with Mitchell saying a major part of their strategy was to make membership more diverse and inclusive this year.

“There’s always been a misconception that BSU is only for black students. No matter how much you try to be inclusive, I think people will always just say, ‘Oh, you guys stick together.’ But I feel like most of the people who say that do so without coming out to our events,” said Samuel Collins, co-president of the BSU.

Black Americans are more upbeat about black progress since Obama’s election, according to a Pew Research Center survey published.

“A majority of blacks (54 percent) also report that Obama’s barrier-breaking election has improved race relations in America,” the survey reports.

The telephone survey was conducted from Oct. 28 to Nov. 30, 2009, among a nationally representative sample of 2,884 adults, including 812 blacks.

Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, said Obama’s election may have changed attitudes of students across national levels.

“Anytime you have that type of major milestone, it impacts people. There was lots of data on changes in attitude of young people in schools, their attitudes towards achievement. I think some of those feelings and some of those responses are lasting,” he said.

But Tapscott cautioned against assumptions that the election of Obama has created a perfect, race-free world, noting that the president’s experience is inspirational, but individual to him.

“Some people say the glass ceiling is broken forever, but that’s a tougher call to make. It certainly was broken for him,” he said. “The important thing now is that the glass ceiling never grows back. Every time a community makes a major milestone, there’s sometimes a backlash, and you don’t want that to occur.”

For junior Sally Nuamah, Obama’s election has not changed much in the way of race relations in America, though certain stereotypes and misconceptions may have been affected.

“To be frank, I think the only thing that has changed since Obama became president is that there is now a representation of a black male that is different from what we usually see,” Nuamah, former president of the Black Women’s Forum, said. “But we’re really not post-racial or colorblind, because all of the institutions and mindsets that existed before Obama are still here.”

Lauren French, a junior and president of the historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., said there is still a long way to go for America, regardless of the president.

“When I step into a classroom and I’m the only black person, do I naturally feel assimilated? It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a thought that does come to my mind,” she said.

According to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning, students identifying themselves as black number around 8.7 of the total GW population, including both undergraduates and graduates. The number hasn’t changed much in the past 10 years.

Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president for D.C. Relations at GW and faculty adviser of the Williams House, believes the pride felt by African Americans after the election of Obama is only natural. The Williams House, known casually as the “Black House,” was founded as a way for students to learn about the history of D.C. from the black perspective and is in its sixth year as a Living and Learning Community.

“Everyone is proud of the United States for taking this great step forward, and I think there’s great pride in the African American community,” he said. “The same would be true if it were an Italian American president. The same was true when John Kennedy was known as the Catholic president. Of course people are proud and happy. I think that it increases the brilliance of America as we move forward, to appreciate that all cultures and nationalities can provide this country with great leadership.”

Demczuk pointed to the mixture of black and white students at the recent candlelight vigil for Haiti earthquake victims as a “very good thing,” saying, “On our campus it’s very well integrated and well mixed-up.”

Demczuk said GW students can always do a better job of forging cross-cultural connections, noting that in an age where Oprah is the queen of talk (“not just black talk”) and Obama is president, there should be no excuses for separation.

“We encourage Latino, Asian, white, every student to come and partake in many of the activities that maybe stress black history, but guess what? It’s American history,” he said.

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