Will There Be an "Acting Obama" Effect?

There were so many wild cards in this past presidential election that surely scholars will be poring over it for years to come. In light of Obama‘s victory, I had a thought that may already be on some scholar’s mind, although the proof of this thesis will hardly be simple.

It goes like this. For years, some scholars (including Roland Fryer) have argued that one factor in the black-white education gap is the “acting white” phenomenon, in which some students, as Fryer and David Austen-Smith wrote:

… have tremendous disincentives to invest in particular behaviors (i.e., education, ballet, etc.) due to the fact that they may be deemed a person who is trying to act like a white person (a k a “selling-out”). Such a label, in some neighborhoods, can carry penalties that range from being deemed a social outcast, to being beaten or killed.

If you believe in the “acting white” effect — not everyone does — then should you also believe in the potential of an “acting Obama” effect? That is, if “acting white” means that certain kinds of accomplishment are considered off-limits by certain kinds of black kids, will the fact that a black man (O.K., a mixed-race man) is now president of the United States change the perception of what it means to be accomplished, and what it means to be black?

For black school kids, will the positive effect of a black president trump the negative effect of the “acting white” stereotype? Or might it even piggyback the stereotype? — i.e., if you’re willing to act really white, you get to run the free world.

Conversely, I’ve heard people say that when white people act stupid, they are “acting Bush.”

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  1. Carl says:

    I’ll believe we’re really past our innate, unconscious prejudices not when a black man is sworn in next January; nor when a woman of any race is sworn in (America, you’re behind India and Pakistan on that one!). I’ll believe it when a *short* man is sworn in…

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  2. charles says:

    I sure hope so. I didn’t vote for the guy, but he’s a great role model. I firmly believe that blacks have lagged other minority groups in nearly every meaningful statistic because they have some terrible high-profile role models in individuals that look outward and point fingers (Revs Al S, JJ, Lf), or who are simply thug based. That culture doesn’t exist with many other groups. Even when finger pointing might have been warranted many other groups did not; they just succeeded.

    It’s changing with the words of Bill Cosby, the election of Obama, the success of Robert Johnson among others. It’s good for us all when every group has examples of success like this that they can model behavior after. Demonstrated success within the structure of America. The question is will they? There are folks (the revs above) that make a nice living the way things are.

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  3. Joe Smith says:

    Obama’s election is a challenge to the black community. It appears that he was raised “white”, with white cultural norms and values. “Racism” will no longer be a valid excuse for failure. Should be interesting.

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  4. RobertSeattle says:


    I think we’ll really have grown up when an Atheist can run for President and win.

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  5. Kristine says:

    I didn’t vote for him but this is one thing I am hoping for. When he was on MTV and told the kids to start respecting themselves and others by pulling their pants up and not showing their underwear to everyone I saw a glimmer of hope (ha!). Young black America has been needing a role model that isn’t a gangsta rapper . . . who thinks that college is cool . . . and that creating a family and staying in a loving relationship with your wife in a traditional family role is actually a cool thing . . . . etc.

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  6. Simon Halliday says:

    Sorry, yes I forget that being ‘raised white’ often excludes the problems of living in a high crime rate area, being excluded from access to valuable social networks, being in a family that is less likely to have higher education, having lesser access to wealth on average, and more. One forgets what it means to be ‘raised white’.

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  7. addicted says:

    As an international Indian student studying in Atlanta, anyone who believes that racism (against black people) has somewhow disappeared is completely fooling themselves. The ceiling may have been extended, but there are severe challenges that black communities have to face. Here in the south, these challenges also extend to the government, which constantly tries to cut funding to black dominated inner schools, is unwilling to extend public transportation to the entire city so that black people do not encroach upon the rich white people’s turf. College going white kids have code names for black people, when they want to disparage them. Some fraternities won’t allow black people inside them.

    Yes, all this in 2008.

    Fortunately, most of the US has moved beyond this, but to say all of it has is absolutely untrue.

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  8. John Doe says:

    Aside from Obama unique success among African-Americans, he has another very distinct experience from most black children who might be accused of acting white. While he shares with a portion of them the fact that his father had children by several women and did not help raise any of them, his mother was white. Furthermore, he was essentially raised by a white couple from a generation early. He made no secret in his campaign that his grandfather was in Patton’s army and his mother made bombers. The value set and behavior patterns of a Greatest Generation couple are decidedly different than those of inner-city black parent(s). Moreover, parts of his formative years were spent oversea where charges of “acting white” would not have occurred. The inner-city black may have a whole host of challenges and obstacles that Obama did not have to deal with and is likely unfamiliar with. If “acting Obama” means being raised by an older white couple hardened by WWII, being isolated from the stereotypical black experience, and being admitted to the best schools in America, I doubt we’ll see many black children “acting Obama”.

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