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Obama's success isn't all good news for black Americans

By Jennifer Rice,2014-03-16 23:45
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Obama's success isn't all good news for black Americans

    As Erin White watched the election results head towards victory for Barack Obama, she felt a burden lifting from her shoulders. "In that one second, it was a validation for my whole race," she recalls. ????"I've always been an achiever," says White, who is studying for an MBA at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "But there had always been these things in the back of my mind questioning whether I really can be who I want. It was like a shadow, following me around saying you can only go so far. Now it's like a barrier has been let down."

    ????White's experience is what many psychologists had expected - that Obama would prove to be a powerful role model for African Americans. Some hoped his rise to prominence would have a big impact on white Americans, too, challenging those who still harbour racist sentiments. "The traits that characterise him are very contradictory to the racial stereotypes that black people are aggressive and uneducated," says Ashby Plant of Florida State University. "He's very intelligent and eloquent."

    ????Sting in the tail

    ????Ashby Plant is one of a number of psychologists who seized on Obama's candidacy to test hypotheses about the power of role models. Their work is already starting to reveal how the "Obama effect" is changing people's views and behaviour. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not all good news: there is a sting in the tail of the Obama effect.

    ????But first the good news. Barack Obama really is a positive role model for African Americans, and he was making an impact even before he got to the White House. Indeed, the Obama effect can be surprisingly immediate and powerful, as Ray Friedman of Vanderbilt University and his colleagues discovered.

    ????They tested four separate groups at four key stages of Obama's presidential campaign. Each group consisted of around 120 adults of similar age and education, and the test assessed their language skills. At two of these stages, when Obama's success was less than certain, the tests showed a clear difference between the scores of the white and black participants?ªan average of 12.1 out of 20, compared to 8.8, for example. When the Obama fever was at its height, however, the black participants performed much better. Those who had watched Obama's acceptance speech as the Democrats' presidential candidate performed just as well, on average, as the white subjects.After his election victory, this was true of all the black participants.

    ????Dramatic shift

    ????What can explain this dramatic shift? At the start of the test, the participants had to declare their race and were told their results would be used to assess their strengths and weaknesses. This should have primed the subjects with "stereotype threat" ?C an anxiety that

    their results will confirm negative stereotypes, which has been shown to damage the performance of African Americans.

    ????Obama's successes seemed to act as a shield against this. "We suspect they felt inspired and energised by his victory, so the stereotype threat wouldn't prove a distraction," says Friedman.

    ????Lingering racism

    ????If the Obama effect is positive for African Americans, how is it affecting their white compatriots (Í??û)? Is the experience of having a charismatic (ÓÐ?ÈÁ?µÄ) black president modifying lingering racist attitudes? There is no easy way to measure racism directly; instead psychologists assess what is known as "implicit bias", using a computer-based test that measures how quickly people associate positive and negative words?ªsuch as "love" or "evil"?ªwith photos of black or white faces. A similar test can also measure how quickly subjects associate stereotypical traits?ªsuch as athletic skills or mental ability?ªwith a particular group.

    ????In a study that will appear in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Plant's team tested 229 students during the height of the Obama fever. They found that implicit bias has fallen by as much as 90% compared with the level found in a similar study in 2006. "That's an unusually large drop," Plant says.

    ????While the team can't be sure their results are due solely to Obama, they also showed that those with the lowest bias were likely to subconsciously associate black skin colour with political words such as "government" or "president". This suggests that Obama was strongly on their mind, says Plant.

    ????Drop in bias

    ????Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who runs a website that measures implicit bias using similar test, has also observed a small drop in bias in the 700,000 visitors to the site since January 2007, which might be explained by Obama's rise to popularity. However, his preliminary results suggest that change will be much slower coming than Plant's results suggest.

    ????Talking honestly

    ????"People now have the opportunity of expressing support for Obama every day," says Daniel Effron at Stanford University in California. "Our research arouses the concern that people may now be more likely to raise negative views of African Americans." On the other hand, he says, it may just encourage people to talk more honestly about their feelings regarding race issues, which may not be such a bad thing. ????Another part of the study suggests far more is at stake than the mere expression of views. The Obama effect may have a negative side. Just one week after Obama was elected president, participants were less ready to support policies designed to address racial inequality than

they had been two weeks before the election.

    ????Huge obstacles

    ????It could, of course, also be that Obama's success helps people to forget that a disproportionate number of black Americans still live in poverty and face huge obstacles when trying to overcome these circumstances. "Barack Obama's family is such a salient (?öÉ?µÄ) image, we generalise it and fail to see the larger picture?ªthat there's injustice in every aspect of American life," says Cheryl Kaiser of the University of Washington in Seattle. Those trying to address issues of racial inequality need to constantly remind people of the inequalities that still exist to counteract the Obama's effect, she says.

    ????Though Plant's findings were more positive, she too warns against thinking that racism and racial inequalities are no longer a problem. "The last thing I want is for people to think everything's solved." ????These findings do not only apply to Obama, or even just to race. They should hold for any role model in any country. "There's no reason we wouldn't have seen the same effect on our views of women if Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin had been elected," says Effron. So the election of a female leader might have a downside for other women. ????Beyond race

    ????We also don't yet know how long the Obama effect?ªboth its good side and its bad?ªwill last.Political sentiment is notoriously changeable: What if things begin to go wrong for Obama, and his popularity slumps?

    ????And what if Americans become so familiar with having Obama as their president that they stop considering his race altogether? "Over time he might become his own entity," says Plant. This might seem like the ultimate defeat for racism, but ignoring the race of certain select individuals?ªa phenomenon that psychologists call subtyping?ªalso has an insidious (Òþ?üµÄ) side. "We think it happens to help people preserve their beliefs, so they can still hold on to the previous stereotypes." That could turn out to be the cruellest of all the twists to the Obama effect.

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