'I didn't believe it'

The Baltimore Sun

Jordan Farmer will be a senior this fall at Baltimore Freedom Academy and, after graduation, plans on a life of entrepreneurship. He can see "CEO" on the horizon.

In his mind, some of the barriers to his success have fallen now that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has done what no African-American has done before: apparently secured a major-party nomination for the nation's highest office.

"White people still think that black people are ... inferior to them. But if one runs the country, how can you still think that?" said the 16-year-old from West Baltimore. "If he becomes the president, I can't imagine that there'll be racism."

Since the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Obama's rise to prominence has been met with myriad emotions, particularly in the black community. Many who are old enough to remember a time when Obama's skin color would have held him back find themselves moved, inspired and in some cases, surprised, by how far the country has come.

Younger ones, without the historical perspective of their parents and grandparents, find it less surprising and wonder what it means for their futures.

Sitting in a conference room at the Freedom Academy, an independent public high school created five years ago by a group of idealists for families in a majority-black city struggling to educate its children, a group of outspoken teens discussed what the nomination means to them. Their opinions ran the gamut: Some, like Farmer, see Obama's victory as a boon for race relations, and others hope it will translate into more public money for schools and more black youths drawn to public service and professional careers.

Others weren't so sure it would solve all the country's problems.

"Racism isn't going to be eradicated just because a black man is president," said Winston English, 17, of East Baltimore - taking a break from final exams with several classmates, all of whom were neatly dressed in the school's uniform of collared shirts and khaki bottoms.

The Freedom Academy, which houses 280 students in unused space at Lombard Middle School in East Baltimore, sits in a neighborhood of rowhouses a block's walk from an adult movie theater and a bustling strip of trendy Latin American restaurants. Nearby, the growing Harbor East neighborhood attracts Whole Foods shoppers and wine enthusiasts.

Students come to the Freedom Academy from all over the city; every year, administrators compile a waiting list of hundreds. One draw is the school's success rate. For the last two years, 100 percent of the seniors have been accepted to college.

Aiming high

The students discussing Obama's victory all have college on the horizon and impressive career goals. Yasmine Coles, 17, wants to open a law firm; English sees himself as a psychologist.

Because of Obama, Breanna Johnson, 16, a sophomore at the academy, envisions a day when more of her peers will aim for high-profile careers - some, maybe, in politics.

"Four years from now, there's going to be a lot of black males that run for president, or black females who want to do something in politics," she said.

And if not, at the very least, it could keep some young people in school, said English.

"It'll probably get a lot of black men to stay out of trouble," he said. "Boys, kids in general, look up to these rappers and these basketball players. Maybe this will make them say, 'Let me run something, let me run a business,' instead of 'I want to be a rapper.' "

Tafari Mills, 15, thinks it's unfortunate that his peers believe Obama has the power to eradicate racism or fan the flames of it, simply by being president.

'He's just a man'

"I think people might have too many expectations for him," said Mills, a sophomore. "They should just see him as a black man trying to make a change in this country. ... People don't seem to understand it's not just about black people. He has a whole country to run. And he's just a man. He's a symbol in some ways, maybe for the older generation, but to me, he's just a man - not as much of a symbol as people think."

Coles - who would have voted for Clinton, had she been old enough - agreed with that point.

"You have a whole country of black people looking at him like he's a god or like another re-creation of Martin Luther King," she said. "They can't look at him like that."

But some young people just can't help themselves. The idea that an African-American could become president is exhilarating. For Farmer, the nomination means change is in the air - change that his older relatives never believed would happen.

"My great-grandmother said that she couldn't believe that a white woman and a black man ran for president of the United States. She still doesn't believe it," said Farmer.

"I didn't believe it at first, but as time went on, I could tell it was going to happen. And I think that if it doesn't happen this time, it'll happen before I die."

Effect on adults

Adults who follow youth culture say they, too, have seen an impact from Obama's candidacy, though some fear his inspirational story will not resonate with poor people in the inner city.

Chantel Clea, who is chairwoman of the Baltimore City Youth Commission, which advises the City Council on youth issues, has seen Obama's candidacy motivate even younger Baltimoreans, particularly her cousins, ages 7, 11 and 14.

"This is something our generation ... can say we have been a part of," Clea said. "Our parents and grandparents, they can say they were a part of the civil rights movement or the March on Washington. We can actually say, 'I donated money to the campaign for the first black president of the United States.' He has given my generation and the generation behind me a sense of hope and something we can tangibly belong to."Even if he does not win, for a lot of people it's about being engaged in the process and knowing that I can make a difference," she said. "They know that it's not that far-fetched that as an African-American in Baltimore City, or anywhere, I can actually hold the seat of highest office and I can actually be taken seriously."

Such a statement marks a real change in American society, said Farajii Muhammad, president of the Towson-based New Light Leadership coalition, which trains youth to be political activists.

"Even if for some reason he doesn't make it to the presidency, know for sure, there is some young black person who is saying right now, 'He has paved the way thus far; if not this time, next time, we can do it.' "

Muhammad, 29, who hosts a radio show on WEAA called Listen Up, which discusses politics, education and economics aimed at a young urban audience, said he hopes Obama's message can empower Baltimore's youth, particularly those confronting issues of poverty and violence.

Baltimore school officials certainly hope the enthusiastic predictions prove true.

"I think it will be tremendous for all children in the country, not simply African-American children," said city schools chief Andres Alonso. "But it will mean most to African-American children and to immigrant children. What a life story!"

But other experts think Obama's influence will be uneven at best - especially in high-poverty, high-crime areas such as Baltimore.

"I am wondering if the novelty will rub off, particularly among those youth who have economic struggles as it relates to living in poor neighborhoods," said Fredrick C. Harris, a political science professor at Columbia University and director of the Center on African American Politics and Society.

"The question is: Is an African-American elected to the highest office going to alter their economic circumstances? They still have to contend with the drug dealers in their communities, the crumbling public schools and just making it day to day."

Back at the Baltimore Freedom Academy, Johnson agrees.

"I don't see him making that much of a change that all people are going to say, 'Oh, Barack Obama is president. Let me go to school,' " she said.

"People are still going to do what they want to do," said Jasmine Cooper, 15, a sophomore.

Staying hopeful

But English still is hopeful, and waiting to see if that hope will become - as Obama promises - real change.

Just last week he was talking to a friend's grandmother who got teary-eyed when discussing her discrimination-filled childhood and, consequently, what Obama's possible nomination meant to her.

"The stuff she went through was crazy," English said. "So to go from there to this point, it's amazing. Now I just want to see what type of changes he's going to make for black people, for Hispanic people, for all nationalities. Because it's still hard out here. Even now, it's hard to get a job. So I just want to see what changes are going to get made."



Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.


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