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  • What does ‘the Obama effect’ mean for black kids?

    by Sunny
    26th January, 2009 at 3:00 am    

    Although I’ve been among the people annoyed at the media’s obsession with Barack Obama’s black heritage, there’s no denying that symbolism matters. But could that go far as student performance? The New York Times reports:

    Now researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election. The inspiring role model that Mr. Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude in a report summarizing their results.

    Whoa. Now there’s two, possibly contradictory, reasons that occur to me. Firstly, that (racial) symbolism matters and those who argue for better representation of ethnic minorities in public offices have a point in that it might help people of those minorities feel like they have more of a stake in the country.

    Secondly, it also suggests racial differences in education achievement are less because of a kid’s race or even ‘institutional racism’, but more down to how they see themselves doing. In other words, if they’re self-motivated then they do better than kids of other races who think they won’t achieve anything in life. Which may all suggest that if you want to achieve educational achievement among poor black, white and Bangladeshi kids - then money might be better spent motivating them rather than other things.

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    1. halima — on 26th January, 2009 at 7:41 am  


      I don’t see much contradiction… poorer students from various backgrounds suffer from disadvantage - and one of the motivating factors is always going to be good role models - whether they be inside the family or on television or in the highest public office. But this doesn’t mean that good old fashioned investment is not also needed in schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where certain ethnic groups are disporpotiOnately located.

      What’s interesting for me is that such symbolicism might actually change the perceptoins of those sitting behind the administration benches - perhaps they, too, will see more positive in young black men than was previously the case. This discussion has all been about symbolicism in black communities - and what it means for young black men - which is right. but it should go beyond.

      What about an article looking at what this symbolism means for white people? What does Obama signify for the majority ethnic group that is white in the US where this tremoundous symbolicism has just taken place?

      So come on you white folks on PP - what’s Obama meant for you guys…?

    2. Letters From A Tory — on 26th January, 2009 at 9:50 am  

      Unfortunately our education system does not cater for everyone. Motivation and self-esteem are crippled by our exam-fuelled test-ridden education system that makes children believe that they are stupid and cannot achieve anything before they reach secondary school.

      A sad state of affairs.

    3. douglas clark — on 26th January, 2009 at 10:10 am  

      I’d imagine that, if you take an interest is something for the first time ever, perhaps because you see Barack Obama as a role model, you are inevitably going to learn stuff about his world. I’d have quite liked to have taken both tests myself. There are certain things that are now embedded in my brain about US politics generally that would not have been there before this election cycle. For example:

      - what a caucus actually is

      - why the number 538 matters,

      stuff like that.

      These things, and many like them, would probably improve my score, comparing me then to me now.

      It is pretty clear that the Black American demographic was completely enthralled with the new Presidents’ story. So, through a process of engagement, perhaps for the first time since the sixties, for them the nuts and bolts of politics became a ‘hot topic’.

      From that point of view, it can only be a good thing.

      On Halimas’ question, I can only say I am delighted that we have a sentient human being back in the White House. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my head that, had I been born an American, he would have got my vote. The man was, and is, a role model for a far wider constituency than Black Americans.

      I’d also like to add that it is still ‘so far, so good’ with his Presidency. Here’s hoping we’ll all be saying that in eight years time.

    4. Sofia — on 26th January, 2009 at 10:10 am  

      “exam-fuelled test-ridden education system” I don’t think that is the issue really…it is about self belief and confidence as well as aspiration. When I went to school, my career’s teacher didn’t really give me any options…she probably thought all Asian girls got married at 16. My parents instilled confidence, and pushed me to achieve the best I could academically. It’s lazy to say all Asian parents are like this, because they aren’t. I had no role models growing up, no Asian women in positions of authority etc, and I know plenty of my Asian female peers have achieved a great deal in the last 10 years, even though they do not come from the traditional 2.4 family set up.

    5. Ravi Naik — on 26th January, 2009 at 12:25 pm  

      I don’t think anyone should be surprised by this. ‘Identity politics’ is harmful to minorities, because it works on using the victimisation card. As in, you can work hard as much as you like, but the Man (racism, prejudice) will always keep you down.

      Obama trascends that: he says, you know our country is still not perfect, but it has gone a long way. You can be whatever you like as long as you work hard - you might even have to work harder… but you will reach there.

      There is a moving clip made last year when Obama was still fighting to get the Democratic nomination, where some urban black kids talked about politics and you can really see the “Obama” effect there. I will post the link in a few hours.

    6. Kismet Hardy — on 26th January, 2009 at 1:03 pm  

      Role models, for want of a better term, do have a positive effect. I’m not entirely sure the likes of Ice T denouncing gang culture has made that much of a difference in the streets, but I do know Tiger Woods has caused a much higher interest in golf among black people. So the likelihood of a black American kid sticking to his studies, knowing how high the ceiling has now been raised, is pretty likely

    7. bananabrain — on 26th January, 2009 at 1:56 pm  

      I’m not entirely sure the likes of Ice T denouncing gang culture has made that much of a difference in the streets

      the likes of ice-t talking about it in media that i as a suburban, british jew might actually get to hear about and engage with has made a difference to how i understand it when i encounter it on the streets.

      an interesting obama-soundbite from his “dreams from my father”, on the problem with african traditional culture: “if everyone is family, then no-one is”.

      that got me thinking quite deeply.



    8. Cyburn — on 26th January, 2009 at 2:40 pm  

      Although with Obama now being president, there not as much as an excuse for being a victim among ethnics.

    9. chairwoman — on 26th January, 2009 at 3:02 pm  

      halima - I was not initially a supporter of Obama, primarily because I wanted to see a woman, Hillary Clinton, President.

      But as one of an ethnic minority myself, even a pale one, it’s wonderful to see one of ‘us’ in the White House.

    10. kELvi — on 26th January, 2009 at 4:03 pm  

      Maybe in the next decade or two we will see an end to the pseudoscientific notion of IQ. This is as good a start as any.

    11. Ravi Naik — on 26th January, 2009 at 4:05 pm  

      Here is the “Obama effect” video I was talking about. This was back in April 2008.

    12. sonia — on 26th January, 2009 at 4:41 pm  

      good points halima.

      how your peers value you is very significant of course. if everyone sees themselves as destined to be ‘losers’ guess what..

      also the more you feel ybe less easy for lots of people might feel like. obama’s “yes we can” i’m sure will inspire lots of people, especially those who like to claim there are ‘external’ barriers stopping them. all this symbolic hoo ha will mean some won’t be able to whine ‘poor me’ as much.

      does it really make a difference that the president is black - i doubt it. there have always been successful black people, even if they weren’t presidents.

      the main thing in the US is though - for black or white or brown or red or whoever - is the prohibitive costs of any kind of university education. and without a university education - its pretty damned difficult. so there are far more REAL barriers over there.

      do most british people even have a clue how much we’re talking - in terms of tuition fees - at US universities? No.

      of course, watch tuition fees here eventually scale to US levels, and then we really will have major barriers as well. Rather than people deciding they didn’t want to go to university because they were salt of the earth etc. (or not even thinking of it as an option) it will get to the point where people might want to go, but very very few people will actually be able to afford it.

    13. Parvinder Singh — on 26th January, 2009 at 4:41 pm  

      forget the ‘Mozart’ effect !
      An awe-inspiring video.
      thanks Ravi.

    14. sonia — on 26th January, 2009 at 4:50 pm  

      well said Ravi in no.5 and thanks for that link

    15. Dalbir — on 26th January, 2009 at 7:33 pm  

      Hope is a big thing. I imagine many students (at least post compulsary ones) have deeply internalised dreams and aspirations for the future. I know I did as a student.

      The effect of having a black man reach the highest of posts make those hopes psychologically more concrete, more achievable. You can imagine how this would create a burst of motivation, especially in environments when the unwritten rule generally has been, “leave that alone, it’s only for white folk.”

      As a teacher I have occasionally heard comments from students suggesting that they believe that racial background may play a big part in future opportunities for them. The question I think we should ask is ‘exactly what makes people think like that?’ It is naieve to ignore the cultural or racial hegemony that exists in the corporate and political world here in the west. I think this may effect some people’s perception of their reaching their goals.

      I imagine the Obama situation goes a considerable way to weaken such notions. The fact that one person has conquered perceived barriers (and oh so dramatically!)is significant and is motivating in understandable ways.

      The other factor is that the emotional state of a exam taker can play a part in the success or otherwise of their endeavour. Many of us here have probably experienced taking exams whilst in a shite mood. It becomes extra hard work! haha

    16. Gege — on 26th January, 2009 at 7:36 pm  

      someone asked me if i felt inspired as a black man.

      I explained that being brought up in a family with educated parents, i did not need obama’s victory to inspire me. My parents were already a source of inspiration.

      I believe the same applies to most black people. i.e they are more likely to be inspired by people with whom they have a relationship.

    17. Don — on 26th January, 2009 at 7:57 pm  

      there have always been successful black people, even if they weren’t presidents.

      True, but in government they were always appointed rather than the one doing the appointing.

    18. fug — on 26th January, 2009 at 8:15 pm  

      how do you spend money motivating them?

      give me an economic breakdown of inspiration.

    19. The Queen of Fiddlesticks — on 26th January, 2009 at 9:59 pm  

      So come on you white folks on PP - what’s Obama meant for you guys

      wow! thanks for asking, no one else seems to.
      Forgive me but to answer I need to add a bit of personal bio as life has forced me into a unique perspective on just about everything, and I do not use the word unique as above anything …. I can relate to obama the person. I too am first generation american on one side. My Father and his family are Italian immigrants. My mothers having a longer history in the united states - one side going all the way back to pre revolutionary times with a german/english mother and swedish/french father.
      I am very lucky that I had both people in real life to share their story with me in person and others from the past who had left a very detailed account through news clippings, photos and even journals, all of which gave great insight into my own family and the country I found myself born in….. often times it has also led me to question the way history is portrayed through mainstream methods and accounts of everything from the revolutionary war, the slaughter of american indians, down through the holocaust to slavery and segregation.
      I would have to say as a white american living in 2009 I am quite frankly tired of being blamed for everything wrong in the world not only today but from the beginning of time it would seem.
      All of that really would require a more detailed explanation I am happy to share if anyone cares to understand.
      I fear the word “race”.
      Like Obama I have struggled with Identity, it’s like the world demands you pick something for yourself or from some opposite position doesn’t allow any choice … and it comes from all sides even inside.
      Anyway it is so hard to explain something so complex.
      In some way I find I have always found my self in the place of go between or mediator, which is the voice less and less people want to hear, even now I am surrounded by people from around the world of all and every colour and background. And I am shocked to hear the things they say.
      I always hear a cry for unity and equality, to me Obama proved many things …. one of them is …no matter what happened however many years ago … the united states today on a whole is not as racist as some might have hoped and as a white person I can’t understand why there is such a focus on him being black in the first place? never once did I see him as that, I repeat never even once!
      I do realize it is important to remember where we come from, yes there is and has been racism …. but the equal rights movement took 2 things a voice and an ear … and then it took action, why is it played out as if “whites” played no part in that at all.
      Along side equality stands balance … I can not tell you how many people from “minority” groups have for some reason felt the need to say to me things like … now we are in charge!
      So I have say as a white person I would like to think obama represents us moving above skin colour … but why are so many blacks now seeing just that -he is black?
      I just worry balance will be lost in something that started out good .. and racism will just switch sides over time. For no other reason than people refused to let go of the past story that was never properly balanced in it’s telling…

      I have to wonder now too how are we defining success for future generations? What happened to just wanting to be simple, happy and just maybe a good person?
      I live in NYC and I really really don’t understand why people need a masters degree to get a job in anything and everything… pretty soon you may need one to pump gas and empty garbage. There was a time education was a privilege, then it became a right … how is it now almost another oppressive establishment?

    20. Desi Italiana — on 26th January, 2009 at 10:54 pm  

      I’m not black, but I believe that Obama has become a great role model- not only in terms of race, but for the presidential office. I’m really, really ecstatic that someone who not only speaks the English language perfectly but eloquently writes an entire two books, and understands our Constitution and the law, has raised the bar in terms of what a president should be like. We need intelligent people in the White House, not rich boy, self-entitled, privileged dumbasses who are completely unaware of the world outside of Texas like Bush.

      Now that the sentimental euphoria is over about this historic moment, I can go back to bitching about Obama’s policies, like his new executive order on Guantanamo and black sites doesn’t necessarily do away with extraordinary renditions, or his shameful, biased response to the Gaza crisis, etc.

    21. Desi Italiana — on 26th January, 2009 at 11:04 pm  

      “Secondly, it also suggests racial differences in education achievement are less because of a kid’s race or even ‘institutional racism’, but more down to how they see themselves doing. In other words, if they’re self-motivated then they do better than kids of other races who think they won’t achieve anything in life….if you want to achieve educational achievement among poor black, white and Bangladeshi kids - then money might be better spent motivating them rather than other things.”

      Look, Sunny, that’s bull, what you say above. Motivation and positive role models always help, sure, but no amount of those two can bridge the resource gap between underfunded schools and the nice, rich, nearly all white prep schools. So now you have Obama who’s great, and my hypothetical kid can dream to be president one day, but in the meantime, his/her high school does not have proper textbooks, it is overcrowded, underpaid and overworked teachers are teaching with little materials, and the curriculum does not absolutely prepare you for college the way public schools in rich white neighborhoods or private prep schools do. If my kid does go to a college (whether it’s top-tier or not, and most likely will not be), he/she will be struggling like hell because of the lack of a strong, sturdy, lifelong educational preparation. Kids in impoverished areas (where they are generally nonwhite) are probably less motivated to go to school and reap the rewards of education because there are no tangibles that make them think that they CAN go far. Forget Shaq O’Neil.

      And if you’re thinking that I’m going on my radical, leftist, looney bent, then I guess federally commissioned studies which found a strong correlation between on the state of education in the US and the disparity between parents’ income, race, and residence are in the same camp.

      It’s like you need hope and role models, yeah, great, but you also need the right tools to do things. Like go to Harvard Law School or something-given, of course, that you have the strong academic record to get in the first place.

    22. sonia — on 27th January, 2009 at 12:24 am  

      20 good points desi - yep, absolutely. never mind the colour of the man’s skin, as you say, its about the intellect factor!

    23. sonia — on 27th January, 2009 at 12:26 am  

      “underpaid and overworked teachers”

      Yep - absolutely

    24. Desi Italiana — on 27th January, 2009 at 2:00 am  

      I mean, Obama can coherently speak impromptu. That’s, like, huge, in comparison to what we had before. What did we get when Bush did that? Embarrassing (though comic) “Bushisms.” Thank the heavens above that our current “decider” can string two sentences together.

    25. tim — on 27th January, 2009 at 8:25 am  

      Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” covers this discussion.

      He quotes research that shows once people associate themselves with negative baggage there performance drops.

      The Obama effect would associate people with a positive image of their race.

      ““Researchers did a study in which they had [2] groups of students answer 42 Trivial Pursuit questions. ½ were asked to take 5 minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6% of the questions right. The other ½ were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6%.” p56

      “Psychologists [asked] black college students [to answer] 20 questions from the GRE… When the students were asked to identify their race on the a pretest question… the number of items they got right was cut in half.” P56″

    26. Ravi Naik — on 27th January, 2009 at 10:43 am  

      Look, Sunny, that’s bull, what you say above. Motivation and positive role models always help, sure, but no amount of those two can bridge the resource gap between underfunded schools and the nice, rich, nearly all white prep schools.

      In my view, money itself does not solve the problem of underachievement of blacks and Hispanics in school. Granted, you need to have enough resources to maintain a decent level of education, but I do not think you need to reach to the levels of “nice, rich, all-white prep schools” to provide and receive good education.

      I believe there are two factors that contribute to achievement in school: your parents income and level of education. Parents with more income and education are more likely to afford to stay at home, tutor their children, and expect them to reach college. Parents with low-income and low-level of education are less likely to stay at home because they need to work more hours, and are less likely to help their children in their schoolwork (because they do not know and do not have time) or afford tutors for them.

      But I would not underestimate the Obama factor. It certainly will self-motivate some blacks and other minorities to reach higher - and you need that first step to end this vicious cycle that propagates generations.

    27. persephone — on 27th January, 2009 at 11:44 am  

      Chairwoman: “because I wanted to see a woman, Hillary Clinton, President”

      I can relate to what you are saying as a female US President would have broken another type of glass ceiling.

      Hopefully the election of Obama gives out a wider message (ie not just as regards to those who are black) to other ethnicities and to those not from a priveleged background being shown what can be achieved. So in similar vein I am hoping this will translate to women seeing this as a door opener for them to take strength in that if the black ceiling can be broken so too can the gender ceiling.

    28. billericaydicky — on 27th January, 2009 at 12:36 pm  


      What was your role model in Brick Lane that got you to LSE? I don’t believe in role models except as a way of fringe groups like Operation Black Vote chiselling money out of society to create them.

      Take any minority group in any society in history and you will have those that succeed and those that don’t. it’s as simple as that. Obama is where he is because he has talent, was clearly the best candidate and would have been the one that I would have voted for. And not because he is black.

      Bob Dylan sand “there aint no success like failure and failurse no success atall”. What is success and how is it measured? Certainly a lifetime on the dole and spells in prison can’t be called success but to have got through your life, worked and maybe brought up a family cannot be considered failure even if those people have never become directors of major companies, senior politicians or judges.

      Also there is major manipulation of statistics and figures. The Runnymede Trust has just brought out a report to try and counter the latest figures which show that the biggest failures at school are white boys from singe parent families. The report is nothing more than attempt to maintain the young black man as “victim” so that the race relations industry can keep screwing money out of the system and themselves in jobs.

      We are constantly told that society has “failed” certain ethnic groups and even have Diane Abbott MP claiming that the education system is institutionally racist because so many young black men fail and end up in prison. If that is the case then the institutionally leftist teaching profession must be very selective as girls and other ethnic group very often do better than whites.

      What the election of Obama has done is to put us firmly into a post racial period. He is where he is not because of so called positive discrimination but because he had talent and that last factor should be the only criterion for anything in life.

      Let’s look at one of the most contentious subjects involving race at the moment in this country. Last week the government dropped out of a new bill going before Parliament the hot potato of all black short lists for councill and Parliamentary seats. Harriet Harman has finally admitted what myself and other people have been saying for years which is that all that happens is that members of the same little clique give each other jobs and posts and more white people see themselves as victimised and vote for the BNP.

      It is this fear of the rise of the far right which has given the PC class a dose of reality. In fact none of these so called “equality” schemes have benefited the sections of society they were supposed to only the individuals and groups promoting them.

      Motivation is a personal thing although there is group influence and peer pressure. What interests me is the black press which will carry stories about role models, why black men should be hands on fathers etc and then has a music and entertainment section which is nothing but bling and gangster music. They can’t have it both ways.

      Interestingly the anti fascist group Searchlight is using the internet method used by the Obama campaign to reach people. Details can be found at and it is a way that people can be directly involved in stopping the BNP from getting a seat in the European Parliament in May. Now that is something everyone should be concerned about!

    29. halima — on 27th January, 2009 at 5:04 pm  

      Queen of Fiddlesticks

      Thanks for the personalised account , it’s quite honest and written sincerely that one can’t really argue with what you’ve written - perhaps the era represents something beyond ‘race’ as billercaydicky says in his post.


      You raise lots of interesting points - some dealt with easily in a blog - and others not perhaps.

      The problem with people singling out individuals is that success isn’t measured by one or two examples - it should be measured by the relative success of a group. It’s like being in a classroom and the teacher focuses on the one or two high performers - they will do well, and if supported and nurtured they may do exceptionally well. I am more interested in what the other students are achieving - and if they look like they are achieving below the national average, then that to me spells out a particular problem. I’ll try and work with an example that isn’t as inflammable to anyone .

      In Nepal girls don’t attend school if there are no toilets. It’s as simple as this. For girls, access to adequate water nad toilet facilities is a huge barrier - and the state can legitimately be accused of not paying attention to the needs of girls which then has a discriminatory effect on girls’ enrolement.

      “Interestingly the anti fascist group Searchlight is using the internet method used by the Obama campaign to reach people. ” Yes I would agree this is incredibly worrying.

      “What the election of Obama has done is to put us firmly into a post racial period” I’d pose the question when Margeret Thatcher was elected did we say the election firmly put us in a post-gender period? I think probably not. The battle is half won - but not all won.

    30. halima — on 27th January, 2009 at 5:05 pm  


      ‘But as one of an ethnic minority myself, even a pale one, it’s wonderful to see one of ‘us’ in the White House.”

      That’s nicely put - the work on anti-racism in the UK for a long time was spearheaded by white jewish left with black communities. People seem to forget this given recent twists and events. The Runnymede Trust, too, was founded by prominent white left wing philanphropists.


      It’s all about the resources - with you there 100%. As Fug said - how can you put a price on inspiration, but you can start funding for schools that meet minimum standards - and then we can start taking about the Obama/gold standard.

      Sonia, Ravi

      I think I agree with most of our points . There is someone in me that still identifies with being non-white, and surprisingly, over time, the identification was more with class, and less with my ethnicity. I do think such things matter - there’s a saying that goes around my non-white friends or perhaps I heard it years ago on the Fresh Prince of Bell Air - and it’s this: when you’re black you have to be twice as good as your white peers to get anymore. And I think Obama proves this point to me.

    31. The Queen of Fiddlesticks — on 29th January, 2009 at 5:41 pm  

      Thank you Halima
      and again I am sorry all I have to offer are my own personal experiences . In struggeling with my own identity, it was only once I stopped trying to find an identity including “american” did I realize the beauty in it and I was able to become what I am … a true citizen of the world. unlike most people I do not run away from differences or separate. It has taken me a year to fight my way into the Spanish community. I learn from them and they learn from me. We already are all the same there is nothing to prove. The dance they teach me is the same dance I have danced …..
      I thought to add this Italian tradition here … maybe it you will see what I am trying to say.

      Im sorry I don’t have more time …late for work grrrrrr

    32. Dalbir — on 29th January, 2009 at 6:16 pm  

      “underpaid and overworked teachers”

      Hoora! I’m glad some people notice.

    33. Desi Italiana — on 29th January, 2009 at 6:26 pm  

      Unrelated, but Halima:

      “In Nepal girls don’t attend school if there are no toilets.”

      Very incisive you say that, because I’ve just finished reading a book on sanitation, and one of the things the author draws attention to is that in South Africa, one of the reasons kids in poorer parts don’t go to school is because of the toilet problem.

    34. Desi Italiana — on 29th January, 2009 at 6:30 pm  

      Ravi Naik:

      “But I would not underestimate the Obama factor. It certainly will self-motivate some blacks and other minorities to reach higher - and you need that first step to end this vicious cycle that propagates generations.”

      I wouldn’t underestimate it as well, but I wouldn’t overestimate it either. And forgive me for saying this, but your comment makes it seem like most of the blame for inadequate academic performance amongst, say, blacks, lays with the community (whether black, white, etc) and if they could just stop with the group-think and identity politics and motivate themselves, then everything will eventually level out. I strongly disagree with that; from my experiences and the differences I have seen between schools (both as a student and educator), it is WAY more than that.

      And I agree with you about parental income, something I also alluded to in my previous comment. Most parents who have a high income tend to live in certain enclaves or neighborhoods, and are able to send their kids to better funded schools with much more resources. This probably accounts for why Asian Americans- who until not too long ago until Bobby nee Piyush Jindal came along- didn’t have that many high profile “role models” to look up to, but have consistently done quite well both education and income-wise. What I’m saying is class stratification also solidifies educational stratification as well, and while having positive role models counts for something, it doesn’t count for everything.

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