Forum says Obama's election may change how race is viewed.

Published: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.

Among University of Florida professors and students, there is no shortage of enthusiasm and expectations for Barack Obama's presidency.

Some believe he'll repair international relations and inspire a new era of service, the latter goal already taking shape on campus. Others view his election as a historic milestone marking a new chapter in racial equality in the U.S.

"Everyone feels like an American now. You don't have to be a certain color to be president," said Angel Murphy, an 18-year-old criminology major from Miami.

Participants in a forum Tuesday night on campus looked at Obama's election in the context of the civil rights movement. His presidency provides an opportunity to change the way that people view race, said Kathryn Russell-Brown, law professor and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.

In a country where the fictional Cosby family has been the best-known model of a black family, she said, the Obamas provide a real-life example.

"We now have a family that we know the names of the father, the mother and the children," she said, "(That) is a profound step forward."

Earlier in the day at an inauguration viewing party, students involved with Obama's campaign said they've refashioned the group to promote progressive causes. The group's name was changed to Students for Change from Students for Obama to signal the new purpose, said Lindsay Webber, a 19-year-old advertising major from Winter Park.

"There were a lot of people who felt a call to service in this election that really talked about how we should keep it going," said Webber, the group's membership coordinator.

For Iranian natives Rozita and Romina Mozafarian, the new U.S. president represents an opportunity for peace. The sisters - who are ages 32 and 28 and are graduate students in interior design and building construction at UF, respectively - said Iranians have long been enthusiastic about Obama's prospects to improve international relations.

"When we call (people in Iran) and talk to them, they say we are so hopeful," Rozita Mozafarian said.

Forum participants said Obama's election also brings hope for addressing racial inequality. His election is a milestone in a country founded in slavery and in a state with a history of racial violence, said David Colburn, history professor and director of the Askew Institute on Politics and Society.

"It's the election of Barack Obama that gives us hope that we can achieve the ideals that he refers to, the ideals that were set forth by our founding fathers," he said.

Webber said Students for Change will work toward such goals at a local level. Priorities include changing state law to allow early voting on university campuses and working to maintain Gainesville's legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, she said.

The campaign group's successes in getting students to vote showed that other efforts could be effective, she said.

"All this time and money and resources we could have used for something else," she said.

Both Colburn and Russell-Brown expressed optimism that Obama would address the disproportionate representation of blacks in the criminal justice system.

Russell-Brown said Obama, as the first president who might have experienced racial profiling, could bring a new outlook to issues such as disparities in drug sentencing for blacks.

"I will watch very closely to see what Obama does in terms of the criminal justice system," she said.

Participants said enthusiasm must be tempered with reality.

While Gainesville City Commissioner Scherwin Henry said Obama's election was "a testament to the human spirit," he said much work needs to be done to achieve racial equality.

"It is important for us to remember he cannot lead by himself," he said.

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