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Obama as role model for black youth? Not so fast

The election of the first black president in United States history should send a powerful signal to young black Americans: If Barack Obama made it, so can you.

But some African Americans living in inner city Atlanta said that while Obama is a role model his life appeared so far removed from their own struggles that it was difficult to see how they could use it to spur their own success.

Others said that even something as momentous as Obama’s election would not make it easy to acquire the self-belief that they needed to move forward.

”If Barack has made it into office there is no excuse to say that America is racist because he has proved that you can do something,” said Lebron Cook (22) who registered for the first time to vote for Obama on November 4.

Cook said he wanted to be a successful rapper and admired Jay-Z because he had made a transition from music stardom to corporate power. As an alternative Cook said he would also like to train as a pharmacist.

His dreams, though, looked tough to attain. After leaving school, Cook became homeless for several months and worked in what he described as a series of dead-end, low-paying jobs.

His father and other family members were in an out of jail and he is staying at a relative’s home in the Bankhead neighborhood of Atlanta, where he said other young people sold drugs for a living.

”Drugs are everywhere,” he said, adding that he lived on about $20 a week.

Cook’s story typifies the obstacles faced by many young African Americans in inner cities. Poor schools, families that are often in disarray, drugs and violence impede success.

More than 20% of all black men born from 1965 through 1969 served time in prison by the time they reached their early 30s, said a study published in the American Sociological Association journal in 2006.

That figure soared for young blacks who had not been to college. By comparison, less than 3% of white men born in the same time period had been to jail, said the study.

”The only way that he [Obama] can make a substantial change is if he addresses things like poverty and joblessness and those deep pervasive factors that affect black boys and men,” said filmmaker Byron Hurt.

Image matters
Hurt’s latest film, Barack and Curtis, is a 10-minute documentary released on the internet that compares the image projected by Obama with the image of Curtis Jackson, who is better known as the rapper 50 Cent.

The movie argues that Obama’s image, as an educated, family man is a stark contrast with that of 50 Cent, who made an album called The Massacre and is famous in part for having been shot nine times in a gang-related incident.

Even though Obama’s election was not a panacea for black men, the importance of the example he sets could not be underestimated, Hurt said in an interview.

”The boost that he has given black men is more symbolic than anything else,” said Hurt. ”But I don’t want to undervalue symbolism and image. When I see images of Barack Obama in a baseball hat taking his daughters to school … that is a powerful image.”

Many black Americans said the election result overturned so many deeply held beliefs about the way America perceived its black minority, which makes up around 13% of the population, that it would take time to digest its impact.

But one immediate effect might be to make education and college seem a more viable option for African American young people, said Carla Stokes, founder of a group that works with black teenagers.

”He [Obama] has opened up the door to young black Americans to think that they can be something other than a musician or a sports star,” said Stokes, president of Helping Our Teen Girls, a non-profit organisation.

During the campaign, Obama repeatedly told black audiences about the importance of education, parental responsibility and homework, drawing frequent applause.

Jerrone Strickland, who goes by the name ‘Lil Bankhead, said that while he supported Obama and saw him as a symbol of success he did not need him or anyone else to provide motivation for his dream of a career in the music industry.

Bankhead, a DJ on the V-103 urban music station in Atlanta, said he networked relentlessly, made personal sacrifices and had worked long days and nights to teach himself the skills he needed for his career.

Self promotion and making the right contacts were paramount, he said, adding that a key role model was 50 Cent because he had made it as a rapper, crossed over into mainstream business and still remained true to his roots on the street.

”They [his black friends] can’t sit back and say only a white man can be president. You can be anything you want to be — don’t let anybody tell you you can’t,” Bankhead said. – Reuters

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