America's melting pot of hope

The Baltimore Sun

Hugo Lam sees his story in Barack Obama's.

Certainly, there are differences. Lam was raised in Nicaragua by hardworking parents who inspired him to seek a better life in the United States. Obama is a native son of Hawaii and spent time in Indonesia; he was born to a black goat-herding father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas.

But Obama's meteoric rise from humble beginnings to the nation's highest office resonates, Lam said, as the ultimate American success story - proof that while the streets might not be paved with gold, they still can lead to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"I think for every Latino I speak with, his story is our story," said Lam, 39. "He comes from a poor family, a mixed family, and struggled as a teenager and found his way. He made himself succeed, and that is the American dream. ... He embodies our dream of America."

While the significance of Obama's victory to African-Americans is enormous, to other minorities and to young people, Obama represents a validation of their America.

The president-elect embodies a diverse nation, in which people of color will be the majority by 2042, according to census projections.

As voters of all backgrounds commemorate his barrier-shattering accomplishment, they wonder whether the country will reconsider old divisions, revise expectations and become more inclusive for them, too.

For Lam, director of Baltimore's Park Conservation and Community Outreach office who came to the United States in 2000 for a master's in forest science, it is perhaps a coming of age for a nation that elected 43 straight white presidents.

"Latino immigrants have had very few iconic figures to look up to when we got here," he said. When he cast a ballot for Obama last week, he did so because he found a role model.

"What is really interesting is how many different demographic groups he represents, how many people can see themselves in Barack Obama," said Bryn Upton, an assistant professor of history at McDaniel College. "There are statistically a lot of white people who can see their hopes and dreams in him, as much as black people who can."

Upton wonders whether the historic moment will produce an "Obama effect" - a demonstrable improvement in race relations. "We spend a great deal of time emphasizing firsts," he said, "but they have less meaning without seconds and thirds."

For now, Upton predicts that most observers will revel in the historic moment. That's what he's doing. Like Obama, Upton is the child of a white parent and a black parent. They married in Indiana in 1967, just months before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on interracial marriage. Obama's win validates his family's experience.

"We are excited about this," he said. "There was a sense that as of 11 o'clock [election] night, we count."

For people of color, immigrants and for many women, the promise of the American dream rang hollow until now, he said.

"The promise of America that is laid out in the canon of political documents, with each new generation, those promises touch more people," he said. "Even though the legal framework was there, this is the first clear manifestation that this is ours too. The symbolic importance of that cannot be overestimated."

Emily Hoppe, who is white, said that triumph was meaningful to her too.

"I always felt like anybody interested in African-American studies or women's studies was seen as on the fringe," said Hoppe, a 21-year-old senior at Johns Hopkins University. "But suddenly we are part of the mainstream. Now, I feel like if a white girl wants to read a biography of a black man, that is not seen as different or strange."

Hoppe's boyfriend worked as an Obama field organizer in rural Michigan and Indiana, where he met white voters who were hostile about the idea of voting for a black candidate. While frustrating, such remarks help people tackle the taboo topic of race, Hoppe said.

"There are pundits who want to deny the idea that racism still exists," she said. "To say Barack Obama's presidency means we don't have racism would be false and not helpful to this discussion. I think that having race be part of our national discussion is important."

"That Obama's victory would not have been possible without white voters is itself a challenge to perceptions," said Amar Dixit, 21, a senior at Hopkins. "A lot of people said he couldn't win in Western Pennsylvania or Ohio because voters were racist. But he did. I think that's monumental in itself."

Dixit, the son of Indian immigrant parents, said for first-generation immigrants, Obama shows that anything is possible. "Really, who ever thought that Barack Hussein Obama could be president?" he said.

But Dixit said he fears that the huge expectations of an Obama presidency might be too great a burden, particularly with regard to foreign policy, the most important issue to Dixit.

"He talked a lot about what he was going to do, but does he have the guts to do what he needs to do?" Dixit said.

The election is also a validation for young people, Hoppe said, a group that experts assumed was apathetic about politics.

"It really felt like the first time in my life where I could be idealistic - even if it was just for a day," she said. "My generation has grown up with so much irony and so much cynicism."

Brothers Zishan and Salman Mohammed said they felt that energy when students erupted into spontaneous celebration on Baltimore's 33rd Street, shortly after the election returns came in.

"I had no idea who was jumping on top of me, I was holding hands with students I never met before," said Salman, a 22-year-old senior from Plano, Texas, who was born in Pakistan. "It didn't matter that they were McCain supporters or Ron Paul supporters, they were excited that America was changing. And they were a part of it."

Zishan, a 23-year-old graduate student in biotechnology at Hopkins, said he thinks Obama can improve America's image abroad. Foreign nations don't hate America, he said, they're just frustrated with it.

"They want to be like America," he said. "They just are just wondering how long will it take to have the democracy that America has. They have a lot of respect for Obama."

As the nation's diversity increases, the ethnic and racial groups that backed Obama could produce long-term electoral success for Democrats. The Republican Party made gains among Hispanic voters with George W. Bush on the ticket, but those have eroded. Republican efforts to attract blacks have largely fizzled. The GOP is entering a period of regrouping, figuring out how to attract members of ethnic groups that seem to prefer Democrats.

Lam, the Nicaragua native, scoffs at the pundits who questioned if Latino voters could vote for a black man. After Hillary Clinton enjoyed huge Latino support in the primaries, they voted for Obama over John McCain at a margin of nearly 2 to 1, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"He crossed over, and that is essential," he said. "It is the maximum expression of democracy in this country. You had white voters, Hispanics, Asians, blacks, it was voters across the board that made this happen. It was a mixture. It had to be a mixture."

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