Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Obama: A New Kind of Role Model

For the last forty years, since the untimely death of Dr. King, Black America has lacked a true national role model.

Sure, we have shared in the successes of athletes and musicians from Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan to Michael Jackson and Jay-Z, not to mention TV and movie stars like Oprah and Will Smith. But those people, I hate to say, would best be described as celebrity figures then idols then role models.

Not since Dr. King has a Black man been charged with leading all of his kinfolk at once. Young and old, college-educated and non-degree holder, rural and urban, rich and poor. All of these segments of the Black community, and others, were once held within the reach of Dr. King's voice.

On November 4, 2008, a man who has so much (smart, educated) yet so little (politician, half-white) in common with Dr. King made his voice heard. And Black America, albeit a generation removed, stood up and watched Barack Obama pick up the baton that Dr. King had taken from W.E.B. Dubois, his sparring partner Booker T. Washington and their predecessors Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Typically relays are run by four individuals, but - as we have learned for the last few centuries - Black America is often required to do more to achieve the same end.

So, running what amounts to the fifth leg, Chicago's favorite son Barack Obama has taken the baton and carried it further than any person of color ever has in this country.

Whether you agree with his policies or not, we can all agree that this moment will forever be remembered as having substantial significance for all Americans with Black Americans, not just African-Americans, at the fore front of that achievement.

With a Kenyan father, Barack Obama is not the traditional Black man in America. He did not live through the segregation that many of our parents and grandparents lived through for his entire life. He did not rise through the political ranks of Chicago and Illinois by being a loud proponent of affirmative action and a staunch opponent of police brutality.

If anything, Barack Obama represents the future of Black America more than most of us ever will. Namely because he represents all of America, which is exactly what Dr. King and those before him struggled so hard to accomplish.

Black America will always admire its athletes, entertainers and musicians, but we are a people best represented by those who seek to serve the public. The best of us are often those chosen to represent all Americans, not just Black Americans. The names Thurgood Marshall and Colin Powell should come to mind.

Like Marshall, Barack Obama used his knowledge of the law to leverage his way up America's ladder to success. And like Powell, he used his skill in Washington to lobby his way up the hearts and minds of Americans.

Now, a generation and some removed from Dr. King's death, we have a real role model who reminds Black Americans that everything feels so much better with a real role model in our lives. Even before we experience the benefits ourselves.

Because for the next 40 years, much like what we saw with Dr. King's emulators, Black boys and girls will strive to be more like Barack Obama. And we'll all be better off because of it.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Chicago Tribune: Election sends right message to young athletes

Election sends right message to young athletes
Chicago Tribune
Rick Morrissey

Over the last few days, black athletes and coaches have lined up to say that Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election proves to young African-Americans that anything is possible.

They should have taken it a step further.

What they should have said, in so many words, was:

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"To the kids who are dreaming of fame and fortune in sports: You have almost no chance of making it to the pros, and your odds of getting a college athletic scholarship are incredibly slim. Don't delude yourself. You're not the exception. You're most likely the rule.

"Play sports for the lessons they teach you about teamwork and effort and life. All those things are transferable to the real world. But there's only one LeBron James, and you're not him. Put down the ball once in a while and pick up a book, the way Obama did. You'll go far."

Deflating? Probably. Unfair? Maybe a little.

But absolutely real.

For too long, too many blacks have looked upon sports and entertainment as the only avenues to achieve huge success. Aided and abetted by coaches, parents and other relatives, they cling to the fantasy of impending wealth and stardom.

In a way, it makes sense. What worked for someone who looks like me and comes from a similar background as me will therefore work for me.

But it doesn't make it any less heartbreaking to watch.

What an opportunity there is now, with Obama preparing to move into the White House. Will kids look up from their pickup games long enough to notice? Will they start to reach higher than a basketball rim?

"What I like about Obama is that, even though his situation might be different from theirs, he did come from humble beginnings," said Louis Harrison Jr., a University of Texas professor who does research on race and athletics. "He wasn't born with a silver spoon. Hopefully, kids will connect with that and see that, hey, here's an opportunity to do something really great, and you don't necessarily have to run fast or jump high to do it."

If a kid comes up short of his goal of becoming a college athlete, his choices might be limited, especially if he hasn't paid attention to school.

If he comes up short of his goal of becoming president of the United States, lots of good can come from the pursuit. Maybe he becomes a doctor, lawyer or businessman. Maybe he makes a nice life for himself and his family.

All of this is coming from your resident white guy, and as such should be taken in that context. I can't begin to understand what it's like to grow up poor with the incredibly difficult challenges many blacks face.

But having just been through the college selection business with one of my children, I know that universities desperately want to increase the number of minority students in their institutions. Scholarships and aid abound for African-Americans.

The problem is that, for many of those kids, the only model they have for going to college is the sports-scholarship model.

Now we have a basketball-playing, soon-to-be leader of the free world who is of mixed racial heritage. The fact he's not like most politicians—the fact he can dribble a basketball without tripping over his feet—has led to all sorts of prose about the president-elect's hoops abilities. But if you have seen his jump shot, you know a basketball career was never in the cards for him.

The important thing is that, somewhere along the way, either he recognized his athletic shortcomings or someone convinced him of them. He went on to Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and the rest is world history.

Sports are not a dead end. They offer us an education of their own. One lesson is that you can't always get what you want. What you do with your life once that lesson sinks in is what really matters. The sooner that lesson arrives for most of us, the better.

Sometimes I hear college coaches talk to children about the importance of academics, and it rings hollow. One look at the graduation rates of college basketball and football programs tells you all you need to know. According to one study, 33 schools in last year's NCAA men's basketball tournament graduated at least 70 percent of their white players. Only 19 schools graduated that many black players.

Lots of kids have been too busy dribbling a basketball or running a football to realize that anything in life is possible. They didn't need Obama's election to tell them that. But it helps. Now all they need to do is look up.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Do You Need an Obama to Believe?

Do You Need an Obama to Believe?
Real Clear Politics
By Larry Elder

"Does Obama's victory, as a black man, make you feel that you can do anything?" Someone asked me that on election night.

It is a caricature of America that, pre-Obama, major obstacles blocked achievement. It is equally a caricature that Obama's win suddenly creates opportunity that did not exist before.

Hard work wins, my dad always told me. My Republican father, who disdained Democrats who "give people something for nothing," taught my brothers and me to work hard, stay focused, live within our means, and at all times avoid self-pity. My mom and dad always said, "Ninety percent of the people don't care about your problems. And the 10 percent are glad it's you."

Born in Athens, Ga., and eventually raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., my dad never knew his biological father. The only father figure in his life was harsh, distant and cold. His mother, because he made "too much noise" for her then-boyfriend, threw him out of the house at age 13.

So this penniless boy, living in the Jim Crow South as the Great Depression loomed, started knocking on doors. He finally got a job running errands and tending the yard for a white family. One day, the family's cook failed to show up. But my dad, having watched her in the kitchen, whipped up a passable meal. The family let the other helper go, and a cook was born.

Seeking more money, my dad applied for and got a job on the railroads as a Pullman porter -- then the country's largest private employer of blacks. He traveled all over the country, making a mental note of California because, he says, its beauty and warm weather seemed open and inviting, and the people seemed more fair.

World War II broke out. My dad enlisted as a Marine. He served as a cook and became a sergeant. The military ultimately stationed him on Guam as we prepared to invade the islands of Japan, an invasion that never took place because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My dad returned to Chattanooga, where he went to an employment office. The lady at the desk told him he walked through the wrong door, directed him back out to the hall, and told him to enter through the "colored only" door.

"That's it," he angrily told my mom, whom he had just married. "I'm going to California, and in a few days, I will send for you."

My father arrived in Los Angeles and went from restaurant to restaurant to find work. "Sorry," he was told, "you have no references." "Sorry, you have no credentials." "Sorry ..." He, of course, knew why.

He went to an employment office. The woman said, "We have no openings." My dad said, "I'll sit until you do." He sat in that office from opening until closing for a day and a half. Finally, the woman called him to the desk and said: "I have a job. It's for a janitor. Do you want it?"

My dad worked at that job for nearly 10 years, while working a second full-time job for nearly as long and cooking for a white family on the weekends. He somehow managed to go to night school to get his GED and save enough money, while in his 40s, to start a small cafe near downtown Los Angeles.

He ran the cafe, which provided my brothers and me weekend and summer jobs, until he was in his 80s. One day, my dad and I decided to clean out the garage. We found a letter he wrote to my older brother, then 2 years old. My dad said he feared that if something happened to him, my brother would need guidance:

May 4, 1951

Kirk, my Son, you are now starting out in life -- a life that Mother and I cannot live for you.

So as you journey through life, remember it's yours, so make it a good one. Always try to cheer up the other fellow.

Learn to think straight, analyze things, be sure you have all the facts before concluding, and always spend less than you earn.

Make friends, work hard, and play hard. Most important of all remember this -- the best of friends wear out if you use them.

This may sound silly, Son, but no matter where you are on the 29th of September (Kirk's birthday), see that Mother gets a little gift, if possible, along with a big kiss and a broad smile.

When you are out on your own, listen and take advice but do your own thinking and concluding, set up a reasonable goal, then be determined to reach it. You can and will, it's up to you, Son.

Your Father,

Randolph Elder

Dad is now 93 and, thankfully, still with us.

So, yes, Obama's historic victory makes a statement about the long, hard, bloody journey. Obama makes people believe. Some of us always did.