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Will the Obama Effect Move Us Beyond Race?

Although I was a committed supporter of former presidential candidate John McCain, I have high hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency. Indeed, I cannot help but marvel at the strides made in race relations in America, culminating with Obama’s taking the oath of office as our 44th president. But my hope runs deeper: I hope that Obama will be able to change the culture in America into one in which success is not as a phenomenon particular to a single race, but as an obtainable goal entirely distinct from one’s skin color.

To put this incredible feat into perspective, and to understand my greatest hope for Obama’s presidency, one has only to look at Clarke Central High School, my alma mater. Located in Athens, Georgia, Clarke Central is a public high school that caters to the economically, socially, and racially diverse town. Currently, according the school’s published statistics, the school population is about 55 percent African American. Roughly 40 percent of the student body is on the free or reduced lunch plan. Because it is located in the small town of Athens, Clarke Central is not technically speaking an “inner-city” school, but it is demographically and economically exactly that.

The public school integrated in 1970, when Burney-Harris High School merged with Athens High School, as a direct — though belated — consequence of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. At the time of Clarke Central’s creation, then, Obama was nine-years-old, and the prospect of an African American president of the United States was an unlikely hope even for the most optimistic civil rights leaders. Indeed, many of those who lead the civil rights battles in the 50s and 60s have expressed this exact sentiment in wonder and amazement since Obama won the presidential election last November.

But my hope for Obama is deeper than politics, and it carries greater cultural implications — which, if successful, would reverberate in the halls of Clarke Central, as well as similar communities around the nation.

One of the more frustrating aspects of attending Clarke Central was a pervasive attitude, held generally by African American students, that success was a “white” trait. This led to taunting of African American students who took advanced classes and who took school seriously by other African American students. They were considered social pariahs, and often derided as being too white.

This cultural attitude prevented many African American students from pursuing academic success. In addition to other factors, of course, it contributed to a despicably low graduation rate at Clarke Central, as well as a general apathy towards schooling in the greater community. Sadly, by virtue of their own racial attitudes, African Americans were prevented from striving for success.

Americans can appreciate their desire to maintain a cultural identity.  What I and many others have questioned is why academic underachievement should be included in this identity.  The outstanding contributions of African Americans to music and culture, but also to science, law, and politics, should be a source of pride.  The election of Obama to the most powerful position in the world has a real potential to change the way that African Americans see themselves. The fact is, an African American can be successful, and that is a fact that cannot go unnoticed, even in the Athens community.

It seems that policy prescriptions will not even be necessary to achieve this goal. The iconic figure of Obama as the holder of the most powerful elected position in the world might be enough. The New York Times recently confirmed the beginning of this emerging trend in an article published days after the inauguration:

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance.

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.

The study this article references confirms a growing trend of improved test results among the African American participants. The study’s sample size is, in my mind, too small to draw any hasty conclusions. But it might just be a good first indication of a trend that will hopefully emerge in the years to come.

To be sure, I have my own reservations of Obama’s policy prescriptions on a range of domestic and national security issues. I am concerned about his new approach to foreign policy, which he seemingly developed as a way of delineating himself from the other presidential candidates on the campaign trail. I believe his approach to the economy is worrisome, as it promises to expand the role of government to unprecedented levels. And his liberal approach to constitutional law threatens to move the courts even farther away from their original intent as delineated in America’s Constitution.

Yet I hope, despite what I see as the most worrisome aspects of an Obama presidency, that much good will come about from the 44th president’s time in office. Time will tell, of course, but the remarkable image of Barack Obama taking the oath of office on the back steps of the United States Capitol building is — regardless of the policy he advocated, or the policy he will implement — one we should all take a moment to reflect on.

I will loyally oppose President Obama when his policy goes against my beliefs; for now, though, I have hope that his presidency will bring about much needed change in the hearts and minds of my fellow citizens.