They call him Mr. President. No, it is not Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert, the other black men who only portrayed the fictional role. President Obama is the real thing, the first African American President of the U.S.A. That four letter word he used seems to have inspired many persons--HOPE. Will this new feeling of hope translate to positive paradigm shifts within and without the black community?
In the midst of the election, Dr. Ray Friedman, David M. Marx and Sei Jin Ko of Vanderbilt, San Diego State, and Northwestern universities, respectively, performed a groundbreaking study. They administered a 20-question sample of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) test to black and white participants, from diverse age brackets (18-63 years old) and educational backgrounds, at four different intervals during the presidential election: in late August 2008, before the Democratic convention, after Obama's nomination, and following his election speech.
Although the study is pending peer review, the findings are compelling. The results of the late August trial suggested a statistically significant discrepancy in scores between black and white test takers. While white participants on average answered 12 out of 20 questions correctly, black participants answered 8.5 out of 20 correctly. Following Obama's nomination and election speech, however, the disparity between test scores vanished due to a phenomenon now referred to as the 'Obama Effect.' Did the African American test takers approach the latter examinations with a sense of "Yes I can"?
SAT--Stereotype Activating Test?
In 1995, Claude Steele conducted an experiment similar to Dr. Friedman's. He administered identical verbal aptitude standardized tests to two different groups of racially diverse Stanford students, with comparable GPAs. Steele advised one group that this was a diagnostic test of verbal ability and told the other group that it was completely non-diagnostic. In the former scenario, African American students scored notably worse than Caucasian students, while scores were more or less equal in the non-diagnostic setup. Apparently, the only causative factor for the disparity in test performance was the primer--being told that the test assessed verbal ability, an area where African Americans are often pigeonholed as inferior.
Steele attributed this phenomenon to stereotype activation. When primed to complete a task at which a group is commonly considered substandard, oppressive stereotypes are activated in the mind and so-called 'stereotype threat' ensues, which is stress caused by the perceived need to disprove pervasive assumptions about one's group. Accordingly, the participants in the study were not simply filling in bubbles with a number two pencil; they were doing their best to legitimize their race. Steele notes that the students who were most affected by stereotype threat were the most outstanding African Americans in terms of intelligence and academic competitiveness. As such, it is the black students most posed to succeed who end up most handicapped on standardized tests.
Stereotypes produce another threat: behavior confirmation. The belief that blacks are intellectually inferior can morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy as Word, Zanna and Cooper demonstrated in a 1974 experiment. They hypothesized that perceptions and beliefs sustain illegitimate stereotypes by altering their subject's behavior. To test this, they assessed the range of interview styles (verbal and nonverbal cues) displayed by Caucasian interviewers.
In their experiment, Caucasian interviewers tended to display "immediate" interviewing styles when interviewing other Caucasians and "nonimmediate" interviewing styles when interviewing African American applicants. The interviewers' behavior was more apathetic when dealing with African Americans: their speech was less polished, and they allotted less time for the interviews.
In a follow-up study, the scientists reversed the approach. The experimenters assessed the behavior of Caucasian interviewers when challenged with the "nonimmediate" interviewing styles that Africa-American candidates were subjected to in the first study. As expected, the Caucasian interviewees exhibited signs of increased stress, like sweaty palms and stunted communication skills. Indeed, expectations have the power to mold their subject's behavior--thus substantiating illusory stereotypes. But perhaps expectations will rise now that Obama has set a new bar for the African American community. Sitting across the desk from a black applicant, interviewers may begin to drop the negative preconceptions and see the individual.
Implicit attitudes reformed?
In the famous doll experiments conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, African American children were given a choice between a dark-skinned doll and a light-skinned doll. The majority of children consistently chose the latter. When asked to explain their reasoning, 11 of the 16 children in the study spoke negatively of the dark-skinned dolls--labeling them "bad" and "ugly"--and nine of the children justified their choice by describing the light-skinned doll as "good" and "pretty." The children were fully aware that their skin tone more closely matched that of the dark-skinned doll, but they shunned it as though it was undesirable, nonetheless. Such behavior exemplifies the internalized racism brought about by stigmatization.
Since the election, black appears to have already shed some if its negative connotations. During a February 2009 interview with New York Times, African- American model Shawn Sutton proposed, "maybe having a black president will make the fashion industry be a little bit more about reality." His statement was in response to the increased ethnic diversity present in this year's New York Fashion week, as more fashion magazines, advertising agencies and designers are deciding to do away with "the whites Only" sign.
Unfortunately, images of beautiful, intelligent, and articulate African Americans are often missing in the mainstream media. Although Obama's election cannot rid the mainstream of racial inequalities, it serves to contradict deep-rooted color associations and biases. Perhaps soon the colors black and white will no longer parallel the oppositions between "good" and "bad," "pretty" and "ugly," but will rather be acknowledged solely for what they are--physical properties.
So, will the 'Obama Effect' level the playing field when it comes to the classroom? To the workplace? Will it encourage black children to embrace their skin color proudly? Dr. Friedman's recent findings suggest that imagery has impact, as Obama's ascension gave black children the opportunity to see a glass ceiling completely demolished.
Obama vs. Sambo
Obama's presidency might positively impact not only self-perceptions of black students but also global perceptions of American blacks as well. In Japan, the notoriously racist children's book Little black Sambo remains a bestseller. Known as Chibikuro Sambo in Japan, it is a fairytale in which the protagonist is a coal-black child with monstrous red lips. Such flagrant racist imagery makes it easy to understand why much of the African American community is offended by the book's popularity in Japan, where Sanrio Co. grossed approximately $11 million selling bulgy-eyed, red-lipped Sambo dolls and accessories.
In Japan, there are fewer forces fighting against stereotypes than in the US. Professor of American studies at the University of Tokyo Nagayo Homma suggests this may be due to the "little social experience in dealing with different races" the Japanese have, as a result of centuries of homogeneous development.
Lately, however, it appears that the Obama Effect is beginning to overshadow the skewed black image of Sambo, as businesses throughout Japan are capitalizing on Obama's hype--selling "everything from T-shirts, fish burgers and cakes to chopsticks with Obama's name" Reuters reports. Perhaps Obama's achievements and media attention will support a fundamental truth: intelligence is not race-specific.
Whether Obama transcended or deemphasized race, his victory marked a global declaration of black achievement and empowerment. He demonstrated that race alone should not preclude or ensure success. Obama's victory sparked scenes of multicultural celebrations in America that extended to Japan and beyond. His election dispels myths of inferiority in blacks while disempowering what former President George W Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." By viewing the Obama family, perhaps black children will develop a positive self-image and be less likely to project negative self-imagery onto black dolls or other black persons. Similarly, if society denounces the false belief that blacks are intellectually inferior, then perhaps blacks will be more likely to reject external misconceptions and more likely to live up to their true potential.
JORDAN CARTER B'12 does not take threats lightly