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Transformed by Obama's win

On the day after Barack Obama was elected president, James Thindwa made an effort to approach life with a new outlook. He stood a bit taller and looked at children who are black like him through a lens of hopefulness and not of despair.

"People on the receiving end of racism start believing in the story of their inferiority," said Thindwa, 53.

In his work as executive director of the Chicago office of Jobs with Justice, Thindwa is often the only African-American person in a room of whites. At times he has doubted white people's sincerity, wondered if whites have lower expectations of him or think he's in his position only because he is black.

After the election, he said, his views changed.

"Now white folks are more credible," said Thindwa. "They say, 'We are not racist,' but the vote for Obama established that their claim that they have made progress is more than rhetorical."

Although it's too early to know how profound and long-lasting such effects will be, many Chicago residents say they feel transformed by Obama's win. Some spoke of a renewed hope for equity in the workplace and in schools. Others wondered aloud whether their children might break past ugly stereotypes.

"I felt like it was a great, great leap forward," said Jennifer Eubanks, 42 and white.

Just months ago, Eubanks said, she wasn't sure she could vote for a black man. But as time passed and she studied Obama's campaign and his message, she became so inspired that she did something she had never done for any other candidate: contribute money.

Eubanks grew up in south suburban Riverdale and Dolton when they were predominantly white communities. She said that, in high school, she was among 200 students bused to school in the largely black suburb of Harvey.

"I'll never forget that the cafeteria was segregated," she said. "I went through four years and never had a problem with the black students, in part because nobody ever crossed the line. There was so little interaction across races."

She said she didn't have her first real relationship with a black person until she entered the workforce, and even that was limited. She said Obama's election—during which she volunteered at a polling place—provided a lesson in how people could work together effectively and how people should be allowed to be people instead of types.

"There were black people and white people, and it was so inspiring that everybody came together for a common cause," said Eubanks, who now lives in St. Louis.

To be sure, few people said they believe Obama's victory will be enough to transform race relations in the United States radically or instantly.

"There are structural issues that need to be addressed," said Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, a professor of sociology at the University of California- Berkeley. He said it is much more difficult for people to transfer their attitude toward Obama to the people of color they encounter every day.

"That is not something that any single election will be able to make a major difference in," Sanchez-Jankowski said.

Omar McRoberts, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said he thinks the election has provided a forum for the kinds of discussion needed to effect change.

"This election doesn't represent the erasure of race as an obstacle or as a point of tension," McRoberts said. "What it marks is the opening of a new space for serious dialogue and hard work."

Brian White began this election season believing his candidate didn't stand a chance. Obama was a black man, and there was no way this country was ready to elect him.

The win changed much about the way White, a 38-year-old white man, sees things in America. He's not ready to call race relations even, not by a long shot. But he is ready to give the country more credit.

"As the race went on and I saw people all over the country respond to him, it really gave you a sense that something had changed in the country," said White, director of the Lakeside Community Development Corp.

Sharon Jones, who is 39 and white, said the Obama win inspired her tremendously.

"Before Tuesday, I thought whatever volunteer work, activism, etc., I engaged in wouldn't make a difference, but now I truly feel the wind is at my back," said Jones, an assistant in the political science department at Benedictine University in Lisle.

Jones hopes to help rebuild homes in New Orleans in the spring and to volunteer at a nearby food pantry. She also plans to give money to the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund and Planned Parenthood.

"I think so much energy has been spent on our differences," she said. "Now people aren't going to worry so much about who is one of us."

Madhuri Patel, 31, the child of South Asian immigrants, said the election forced her to re-evaluate the way she handles racism.

"I would get frustrated because you would see Barack Obama not exactly fighting back aggressively" against racist comments, said Patel, of Wicker Park. But after Tuesday, she had a different perspective. "It's like, wow, you can do that and it can work. . . . Just sort of being a good person and highlighting your qualities and playing by the rules and maybe being respectful and honest."

For years, Christine Cook has harbored resentment over her family's history. A fifth-generation African-American, Cook's family settled on the North Side shortly after being emancipated from slavery. Her family ended up in Englewood after losing its land in a more valuable part of Chicago, an event she blames on racial tensions.

On Wednesday morning, the Chicago public school teacher felt a wave of inspiration as she talked to her students about harnessing potential, setting goals and reaching new heights without barriers or limitations.

"I can't help but make myself think more positively now," Cook said.

Similarly, Joanna Gutson, a 38-year-old married mother of two in South Holland, said it started to sink in after Obama's victory that her family might come to be viewed as the norm among African-Americans rather than the exception. Maybe she could trust people to look beyond stereotypes—that they would not automatically view her son as uneducated or potentially violent.

"Their futures are brighter for me because I hope that people will really look at them for who they are," Gutson said of her children.

Tribune reporters Azam Ahmed, Vikki Ortiz and Bonnie Miller Rubin contributed to this report.

lbowean@tribune.com

dtrice@tribune.com

solkon@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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