Weinberg sophomore Janissia Orgill was going to spend Election Night inside. She planned on watching returns on TV with other members of the black community at the Black House on 1914 Sheridan Road. But around 10 p.m., this viewing party spilled into the streets.
“Once we saw that he took Virginia, we got so excited,” Orgill said. “People were screaming and yelling and running into the streets. We were crying and laughing. We saw people in the streets yelling ‘Obama!’ and we shouted back, ‘Obama!’ People were crying because they couldn’t express how happy they were.”
Orgill is one of many black students who see an Obama presidency as a giant blow to racial stereotypes, or at least a chance to give an often underrepresented minority greater ownership in American politics. According to exit polls, 96 percent of black voters supported the president-elect Tuesday.
“I wanted him to win and I thought he could win, but I also was a realist,” Orgill said.
For Communication senior Angela Ellington, the odds also seemed stacked against Obama.
“At the beginning, I thought it was an amazing thing and that he’s an ambitious man, but I didn’t have too much hope,” Ellington said. “People tend to forget that racism is still alive and well in this nation so I didn’t think that this country would elect a black man.”
In light of the monumental nature of the election in racial history, news outlets focused specifically on the reactions of African-Americans and Africans as election night unfolded. In addition to traditional coverage of viewing parties in Los Angeles and New York, CNN covered those in Kisumu, the town in western Kenya where Obama’s father was raised, and in Harlem.
Orgill said she and her mother spoke on the phone, both in tears, after Obama was declared victor. His candidacy, she said, politicized her mother for the first time in her life.
“My mom specifically realized the importance of this day, ” Orgill said. “She was never interested in politics before Barack Obama came, and she picked up a book and did her research.”
Communication senior Zachary Parker, who was among the estimated 125,000 in Grant Park, said the crowd at the rally was very telling. Obama declared victory in front of a visibly multiracial crowd of supporters in Chicago, while McCain conceded defeat in front of a largely white crowd of supporters in Phoenix.
“The audience reflected America more so than I think it would have if McCain would have won,” Parker said
Race, however, was secondary to larger issues, Ellington said. She said she appreciated that Obama ran his campaign “not as a black man but as an American running for president.”
Obama’s election might eventually serve as a catalyst to improve black representation and race relations at Northwestern, Ellington said. Black students make up 5.79 percent of the NU student body, an under-representation that parallels that of Congress.
“If he is in office and changes things on a grander scale, maybe it will trickle down and affect Northwestern race relations,” Ellington said.
Despite the potential created by Obama’s win, Orgill said attitudes at NU are a prime example of how far the country has yet to go.
“People still feel that affirmative action is wrong and black people don’t deserve to be here and black people are just athletes here,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s going to change race relations right now, but it will change perceptions about black people and hopefully it will get people who have never been involved in black community to get involved, because their president is black.”