Students see world changing, but still feel the sting of racism
TAMPA - Last fall, the election of the nation's first black president unleashed a frenzy of celebration, reflection and public debate. Pundits talked nonstop about what it meant. Were we ready for this? Ridiculously past due? Were we over racism (finally!) as a country? Or were we embracing race (at last!) as just another part of our melting pot? It was huge, a turning point for the nation that has long promised liberty and justice for all. On that point, everyone agreed. Well, pretty much everyone."I just see (Obama) as the president," said Lindsey Lockhart, then a senior at C. Leon King High School in Tampa, shortly after the inauguration. "It's a big deal that he's the first black president. Like, that's historic. But he's just like everybody else." Like, yawn. For Lockhart and many other students at King High, electing a black man wasn't that big of a deal. Yes, they understood the significance of having a black president. It's a first - a very big first. But culturally, these teenagers have been preparing for this moment for as long as they can remember. The question they asked, when it finally arrived, was what took so long? After all, they have grown up with minorities in positions of power. There have been black secretaries of state. Black Supreme Court justices. Black business leaders. And there's Oprah, for crying out loud, plus a slew of other pop culture references and role models. A generation ago, a barrier was broken when the Huxtables - "The Cosby Show" doctor dad, lawyer mom and a beautiful houseful of college-bound kids - showed up as the epitome of success for black Americans in the '80s. But did you see the first three seasons of "24"? A black man was president on TV in 2002! That's what these kids think of as normal. For them, it was just a matter of time until it came true in real life. Now, nine months into Obama's presidency, with the issue of race and respect once again a part of the national conversation (with old people, mostly, such as Jimmy Carter and Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly), they could have predicted that, too. King students - born in the '90s - have lived with a different cultural landscape from their parents and grandparents. Their political references are different as well. Will they be judged by Obama's success or failure in office because he's black and they're black? Hard to say. These students didn't see John F. Kennedy argue for a Civil Rights Act or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. But they have seen heads of state - white, black and brown - rise ... and fall ... and sometimes rise again ... from the comfort of their living rooms. It's about the individual, often as not, they have learned. It's not always about race. It's not that King's students are immune to racism. They attend classes at a school where minorities are the majority. Blacks make up 40 percent of the student body. Whites represent 27 percent, Hispanics 14 percent and Asians 12 percent. There are more than 45 languages spoken throughout the hallways. "At King, it's the 21st century; it's a melting pot, everything's thrown in," then-senior Travis Brown said. "Everybody brings something to the table." So, sure, they hear stuff, feel stuff about race, all the time. They simply prefer not to dwell on it. "I get picked on sometimes," said then-junior Claudia Nunez, who is Dominican. "People stereotype each other even if they don't know them, and it feels like I'm getting judged for the person they don't know deep down inside." Other students said they know the sting from someone not wanting to shake their hand, being called "Oreo" or told they won't make it - all because of their skin color. "I grew up thinking I'm Vince. I never stop and think: I'm different," then-senior Vince Hillmon said. "The fact that Obama won the election shows that we're getting more and more comfortable with race." Hillmon, the oldest of four boys, is biracial. His mom is white, his dad is black, his stepfather is Mexican. He has a white girlfriend and friends of all colors. The first person in his family to attend college, he wants to succeed to honor his family. "Race does matter, and the fact that racism didn't stop (Obama) is what mattered to black folks," Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page said after the inauguration. "A lot of Americans of many colors looked at this as the American Dream come true. What's important about Obama is that it reduces the excuses." Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050. By 2023, more than half of all children will be minorities The number of people who identify themselves as being of two or more races is projected to more than triple from 5.2 million today to 16.2 million by 2050. "Our youth are actually taking the lead in helping older folks understand and accept the changing world. We can't go back," said Cheryl Rodriguez, director of the Institute of Black Life at the University of South Florida. "Most of us who have a sense of the world know that racism still exists ... and that history sort of lurks around us," said Rodriguez, who was raised in West Tampa, the daughter of Tampa civil rights activist Francisco Rodriguez, and graduated from high school in 1969, the same year the Hillsborough County School Board approved plans to desegregate schools. "We should not be in denial about our racial history," she added. "But I would never suggest that it make us bitter." Hillmon, now a student at Florida International University, compares Obama's presidency to his progression at King. "My freshman year, it was really separated, end of story," he said. "There are a lot of multiracial people at school, and when you go to the same school for four years and are around the same people, there's a point it's not about race." Principal Carla Bruning, who describes King as being one of the most diverse schools in Hillsborough County, said the kids are learning important lessons from their school experiences: "Don't judge people by what they have on or what color their skin is. Revel in their differences and be accepting." The election did have an impact, she said, but coining the era "post-racial" or asking her students to be colorblind to their differences is premature and unnecessary, Bruning said. "I would like to think that Barack Obama is an equalizer to some extent," she said. "I feel like we get along at King ... we all have our differences, and that's what makes it interesting. "Our diversity is our greatest strength."
Reporter Sarah Hoye can be reached at (813) 259-7832.