As the nation watches President Barack Obama sworn in as commander-in-chief today for a second time, suburban leaders and Chicago area experts on race relations are reflecting again on what it means to have an African-American as leader of the United States.
There are questions about whether his time in office is helping to improve, or increase, racial tensions. And there is remembrance of past struggles for equality, as the inauguration falls on a day set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Blacks and whites have varying views of what has changed since King's time, and since Obama first took the oath in 2009.
Christopher Anne Easley, associate professor of management at Governor's State University and president of Enlightening Management Consultants, thinks Obama's time in the White House has caused an awakening overall.
“People who were lulled to sleep, believing that racial tension wasn't quite as bad as it was in the years when Dr. King was fighting, had to come to the realization — because of all the racist commentary and other things that just blatantly came to the surface — that we still have these issues,” she said.
“I really believe that there's a very different level of consciousness and very different level of perspectives and approaches that people are taking now to more systemically address the racial divide and not be as tolerant of the undertones of it.”
Most people agree that today's younger generations have been leaders in that regard, even if they don't realize it.
Obama's presidency has strengthened the idea for young Americans that no matter their background, they can find success, said Robert Renteria Jr., president of the From The Barrio Foundation.
“If you put a group of kids — black, brown, white — from an economic background into a room, they don't know color. They know love,” he said.
Harper College President Ken Ender said he was encouraged when he recently made a visit to Stuart R. Paddock School in Palatine to read the book “Obama's Letter to His Daughters” to a group of fourth-graders.
“I was amazed at the receptivity of those children,” he said. “They knew who Barack Obama was, they knew what his daughters' names were.”
Obama, he believes, has shown that regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, talent is talent.
“I think he absolutely has broadened our awareness and appreciation for one another,” he said.
Mayor William McLeod of Hoffman Estates said he agrees with a statement Obama recently made about how his inauguration is possible only because of the work of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
“I grew up in the 1950s, and it's a totally different world now,” he said. “Electing a black president, I think, helps that even more. You see young people like my kids, (to them) race is like hair color. I mean, they don't even look at it. There's been tremendous strides made.”
The Rev. Kevin Williams, senior pastor at the Second Baptist Church of Wheaton, said that as the parent of three teenagers, he sees improvements in their attitudes toward race compared to people his age and older, although he isn't sure how much Obama has influenced that. Regardless, his kids' generation, he said, “embraces true rainbow coalition.”
“They give us an example of what it truly means to work with everyone. I see it in the schools, I see it in the neighborhoods, in the subdivisions,” he said.
However, he added, there is a great need for improvement in race relations in the business community. He also noted that addressing racial tensions has become much more complex in recent years.
“Traditionally we've been divided by race, black or white. Now the United States has changed quite substantially. There's another minority: black, white and brown,” he noted. “It was evident from this past election cycle. That demands that things be changed.”
Others expressed much greater dissatisfaction with what has occurred in terms of equality and understanding during Obama's first four years in office.
Toni Carter, former deputy mayor for Hanover Park, said the African-American community in particular had high hopes that racial tensions would lessen after Obama was elected, but she believes the nation has actually taken a step back.
“It seems like a lot more people are (more) angry than they were before,” she said. Carter doesn't expect an increase in diversity or inclusiveness during Obama's second term either.
“President Obama, I love him ... but I don't anticipate any change,” she said. “His Cabinet doesn't even reflect the change that we all want to see.”
Mount Prospect resident John Brennan, leader of the Suburban Mosaic Book of the Year program, said racism is still evident and he fears the president will be assassinated during his second term because of the color of his skin.
“There just is a ton of hatred out there,” said Brennan, whose program encourages the discussion of books that address cultural understanding and tolerance. “People cannot bring themselves to say they have a problem with race.”
Valerie Profit is the executive director of Powerhouse Productions, which stages a black history play in Schaumburg every February. She said she was listening to tapes of Martin Luther King Jr. the weekend and reflecting on how his words related to today's racial divide.
“It sounds like instead of him talking about 1963, he's talking in 2013,” she said. “Nothing's changed.”
Profit believes racial tensions increased in Obama's first term.
“I'm surprised to see how rampant racism is in 2013,” she said. “So much of it became so obvious in 2008 after we got a black president.”
North Central College political science professor Stephen Maynard Caliendo said scientific data shows that racial tensions “increased slightly” during Obama's first four years in office. He said it's not surprising that would be the case in the short-term, but it is likely that in the long-term Obama will be viewed as someone who helped move social justice forward.
He thinks the fact his students are inviting and accepting of close relationships with people of a different race is “mostly a generational thing” that may or may not be influenced by having Obama in the Oval Office. He notes that older generations grew up in a world where having a black president was unimaginable.
“These kids will not grow up in that world,” he said. “I think if anything the important symbolic aspect of Obama's presidency is it demonstrates to young people ... that color should not be a barrier in achieving the highest office.”
Elgin Community College President David Sam — who said he has seen “flickers of improvements” — agreed that Obama's impact may not be recognized until years from now.
“Sometimes it's difficult to see the results of things in a very short time,” he said. “Long after (Obama) serves his terms, there could be some improvements that could be related to things that he did, he said and he presided over, and at that time maybe credit will be given to him.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.