On the ground, a different story of racial barriers that still stand strong

Despite historic Obama win, some students say they still feel the burden of religious tension

Steffi Lau, assistant city editor, diversity beat writer
Daily Trojan
November 14, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama’s victory last Tuesday has been lauded as proof of racial equality in America. But many students said that although the election of America’s first Black president is a significant step forward for minorities, major racial and religious barriers still remain.

Obama beat Republican nominee Sen. John McCain in an electoral landslide victory, “sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease,” The New York Times reported.

And that was a sentiment echoed by some students. At an election viewing party held at the Annenberg School for Communication last Tuesday, sophomore Ariel Thomas wiped her eyes as the election was called for Obama at promptly 8 p.m.

“I’m fighting back tears,” she said. “People look at African Americans and think that greatness can’t come out of us, but tonight we proved them wrong.”

But other students said major challenges still exist for people of different religions and ethnicities.

“There’s still deep sickness in racial issues, and just because it looks good on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not broken on the inside,” said Apollo Emeka, campus and community liaison for the Center of Black Cultural Student Affairs and a senior majoring in sociology.

“We went to the moon in 1969, and we haven’t been back in over 30 years. So just because it’s been done doesn’t mean that it’ll happen again or that it’ll be easier the next time around,” Emeka said.

Though Emeka said Obama’s election is a great step forward, he fears Obama’s success could actually hurt the Black community. An Obama win could give a false impression that Blacks no longer face discrimination and adversity on all levels of society, he said.

The reality, said Emeka, is that it took an exceptional candidate to overcome those very real barriers — including a higher level of scrutiny.

“They were literally looking in his kindergarten records trying to find dirt on him,” Emeka said.

And it isn’t just racial barriers that still exist; students and religious leaders said there is still considerable intolerance of candidates’ religious beliefs.

Jihad Turk, religious director for USC’s Muslim Student Union and director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, said the negative use of the word “Muslim” to describe Obama shows how far America is from religious and ethnic tolerance.

“He’s not a Muslim, but the implication was that to call him a Muslim was to disqualify him,” Turk said. “The implication was that to be Muslim is antithetical to being a good American.”

Katie Wongthipkongka, a sophomore majoring in kinesiology, said she thought it would be difficult for a non-Christian to run for president.

“Even though Obama is a man of color, he’s still Christian and has the same belief system as many Americans,” she said. “He had to overcome his looks, but religion wasn’t a barrier.”

Regardless of what barriers he did or didn’t topple, one thing is clear: Obama served as a rallying point for voters of minority races. CNN reported that 96 percent of Blacks, 67 percent of Latinos and 63 percent of Asians voted for Obama.

Still, minority students said they are skeptical that racial and religious equality has been reached. Alex Nguyen, a Buddhist and a senior majoring in political science and biology, said he hopes to run for public office one day.

He said he was encouraged by the Obama victory, but fears he would lose votes from people who would judge him for his religion.

“We pride ourselves in the separation of church and state, but the church is still so ingrained in our culture,” he said.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese American, also said he thinks an Asian-American president is a long way off. Part of the problem, he said, is a “perpetual foreigner myth where Asians are not seen as Americans,” he said. “People ask me ‘Where are you from?’ wanting to know my ethnicity, but them asking me that perpetuates the idea of Asian Americans always being foreign no matter where they are born.”

Wongthipkongka, information specialist at Asian Pacific American Student Services, also felt stereotypes would be major obstacles.

“There’s the model minority myth where Asians are seen as good workers, but not good leaders,” she said. “It’s the bamboo ceiling, which makes it difficult for Asian Americans to get positions in politics at all. We still have to keep climbing that ladder.”

As for Emeka, having a Black president represents a huge step forward for his race. But his biggest concern is that America will stop fighting for racial equality because it thinks the battle has ended.

“The racial barrier was like a brick wall, but now it’s like a chain link fence. The barrier is there still, but it’s more permeable,” he said. “[But] if this term turns out terrible, we will not be seeing another president who is not a white male for a long time.”

©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.