Sunday, November 16, 2008

Black men ask if they'll be seen in a different light

Sunday, November 16, 2008
By Carla Hall and Marjorie Miller, The Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Hakeem Holloway may be a classically trained musician who has played with orchestras around the world, but when he crosses a Los Angeles 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 the University of California, Los Angeles' School of Public Affairs, sometimes flies first class. When he does, white passengers often ask Dr. 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, some still wonder if this transformative moment in American politics truly will transform perceptions of black men. How much, if at all, they ask, will Mr. Obama's victory shatter that glass ceiling?

The country may have become accustomed to seeing and hearing minorities populating numerous levels of power in almost all professions, but many people still cling to images that can be stubborn to erase.

Mr. Holloway, a 31-year-old double bassist with a master's degree in music performance from the University of Southern California, says one problem for blacks 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, some whites often did not listen, instead projecting their 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.."

Others couple hopefulness with skepticism about the ability of an Obama presidency to change ingrained racial perceptions.

Some black men worry that an Obama presidency could foster the perception among some whites that racism no longer exists, dispelled magically.

Warner Bros. executive Chaz Fitzhugh, 53, who is black, earned undergraduate and master's degrees from Harvard and has 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 Mr. Fitzhugh, who managed a good-natured chuckle even though he admitted the comments annoy him.

"The perception will be that racism is essentially over and done -- and that if you screw up, it's all on you," Mr. Fitzhugh said. "It's true in some ways but naive in a lot more."

First published on November 16, 2008 at 12:00 am