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.”

David Chowes, NYC

'W" and I are both white.

I plan to act like Obama and speak the magnificent English language in a clear and understandable manner. And, pronounce the word "nuclear," as God has inteneded.

I just hope no one trys to insult me by saying that, 'I'm acting white.'


"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."

This is less a race issue than a class issue. For 7 years, I was a white middle class student going to white working class schools in the 60's and 70's. The same issue existed there. Education was not valued (at that time because you didn't need one, now because a HS diploma is essentially worthless) and I was hated as a result.

Dropping out on your 16th birthday was common and anyone who showed any interest in an education was at best, an outcast. I worked harder to get an education than any ten middle or upper class students I know. It took a tremendous emotional toll on me too. It must be incredibly difficult for any minority kid from the slums to break free.



The irony is that one of Obama's go-to moves when making speeches is to act black.


It's ironic that this post follows Dubner's post, "The Dangers of N=1". Can we hope that one, singular extraordinary accomplishment by an African-American can invigorate black youth and give them a sense of pride, power, and potential they may have never before realized? Can we hope that one election can hold sway over the "acting white" stigma which many believe looms over today's black youth? Can over 225 years of white, male leadership be combated with the ushering in of four years under a new, black leader?

I guess we will just have to wait and see. And in the mean time, hope.



DaveyNc, My sentiments precisely...Well put.



I agree. When a news anchor said early this week "anyone can be president" I thought "except gays and non-christians". And of course we still haven't elected a woman - although I expect that to come much sooner.

Like PDG, I think Obama is most likely agnostic/atheist. It's my hope that he has adopted and identifies with Christian values and the Christian community, but has left out the mythological parts. He thinks far too critically to make that kind of leap.

In any case, I'm ecstatic about our progress so far!

Angela Peralta

I was born in Cuba, at the age of 12 I moved to New Orleans and then at 30 moved to New York City where I reside today. My cousin who lives in Miami called me last night and made a comment about Obama's family wardrobe. To my dismay she made the comment that the future first family wore the colors Red and Black like the revolutionary flag from Fidel Castro's Revolution!

My message is " Get a Grip!" Let Castro die!!!

First of all the colors Red and Black do not belong to Castro only. In Santeria, Red and Black are the colors of Elegua, and anyone who's Orisha is Elegua will feel those two colors are their good luck color and Elegua is the one who " Opens the ways" and perhaps that's why Fidel chose those two colors. Not only that but Red and Black mean Life and Death. Curiuosly enough right after 911 those were the only colors I chose to wear for months because I felt so strongly about the death of New Yorkers and the red meant the continuation of life.

We must remember and respect the fact that The Obama family just lost one of their most important memebers, Obama's grandmother who was to him just like his mother. The president elects family wore the right colors. Black for their mourning and Red for their incredible victory.

It is time for the Cubans in Miami to let go of their obsession with Castro, and their Prehistoric views. Communism is basically dead so you don't have to be afraid of "Democrats" as "pinko's" It is OK to be Cuban and be a Democrat! It is OK to see someone wearing Red and Black and not think of the 26 of July Flag from the Castro Revolution



@56 Jeri "Don’t blame black (especially; there aren’t that many in California)" - Black people make up 7% of CA population and they voted 70%/30% for Prop8, way higher than any other group. Black turnout was high due to Obama running, so they easily pushed it over the edge to a win.

Note: I am not gay nor do I have anyone in my family who is, but I am firm believer in civil rights.

craig anderson

Obama is as white as he is black genetically. He's one smart, articulate, pragmatic guy and he's already a culture hero if not yet a statesman. Look at how an offhand comment "a mutt like I am" put the racail stereotypers, white and black, on notice.

Joe Smith

"America has always been strongly anti-intellectual..."

Leaving aside the horrors of high school, that depends on what you mean by intellectual. The US provides wonderful freedom and opportunity for smart people who want to better themselves. It gives the finger to people who run around saying that they are smarter than everyone else and want to tell everyone else how to live for their own good.


@23 Alex P. Keaton: I'm really sorry that Prop 8 was passed. I see no reason that marriage can't extend to same-sex couples. But the Mormons, et. al., ran a better campaign that the gay and Lesbian community. Apparently you assumed everyone in California would be against Prop 8, and you know what happens when you assume. I'd like to point out that black (and Hispanic) gays and Lesbians are with you, not with their families. Didn't you ever wonder why? And I really don't think that protesting before Mormon churches is going to be particularly effective. It was up to your community to campaign strongly to get your view across. You didn't. Don't blame black (especially; there aren't that many in California) and the Civil Rights Movement for what you failed to do.

@54 Sunshine: I doubt that Malia and Sasha will be able to influence the younger crowd much. I doubt that the President and First Lady are going to change their parenting methods regardless of where they live or what schools their kids go to.



Now all we need to do is vote for a gay black man...that oughta change the world!

Mark B.


That might be correct, but it might not be. I, like most people, cannot read someones internal motivations. He may have "found God" or what have you in his 20s when many people are doing some kind of existential search.

That being said that doesn't discount the previous point. Regardless of Obama's 'true' beliefs, politically, his outward beliefs are important.

Also, PDG = Prisoner Dilemma Game?


To #16 - Not being raised in a specific religious tradition like Judaism or the Baptist Church etc. does not make you an atheist. Americans even today have a very normative view of religion in which anything that isn't classifiable quickly as a specific denomination (and really, as a Christian denomination) is dismissed and disrespected.

As for the point of this post, I also tend to agree that there have been black role models for decades; the entrenched problems in urban culture that snare all races (but blacks in particular) need more than spokesmen and icons to fix them. I think this post ignores the fact that it is poverty and violence, not skin color per se, that gives rise to these outcomes, and "acting white" is merely the "black" version of general anxiety over class differences.


The only way to succeed in the system is to participate in the system and do so by the rules set by the system. Apple's "think different" campaign aside, unless you are a militant or revolutionary looking to subvert and replace the existing system then you have to play within the boundaries set, using existing government, legal, and economic channels.

In this regard it is impossible to "succeed" peacefully without "acting white" because the system itself is perceived as white, thus participation becomes a "white" activity. There's an outstanding problem in Canada where First Nations/Government relations have ground to a complete standstill because the First Nations population (as a stroke) is unwilling to accept any form of compromise or compensation or reparation that is instituted through the "white" system, and those who attempt to make reforms by using the system are considered sell-outs. Since anything the system does is, by definition, the system doing something this has become an unsolvable paradox.



So many people here are posting that Obama was raised by priviledged white people.

Clearly, y'all are forgetting his many years living in Indonesia under a military dictatorship.


Paul K

Note that prior to the 80s, being a "Nerd" was very uncool among young people. The height of coolness was only being a jock. This changed in dramatic ways through the 80s and 90s to where being a nerd is relatively cool. Likely this started with Bill Gates being the richest guy on the planet.

I think this will happen with Obama - perceptions will change in such a way that few will notice it, but his behavior will be emulated rather than derided among many young people (white kids too).


put crabs in a barrell- what happens?- when one crab tries to crawl out, the others pull him back in, so nothing ever changes- that's the teen culture- anyone who 'acts white' gets pulled back into the barrell



Obama is an atheist -- he simply started going to church when he realized it would be politically convenient for him to do so. He was not raised religious -- he simply picked it up in his late 20's when he knew he would need a "religious" background if he were ever going to be a successful politician.

Eric M. Jones

I suspect Obama will have a positive influence for smart people of any race or sex. America has always been strongly anti-intellectual (Read "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" 1963 Richard Hofstadter).

I knew it was all over for us geeky smart guys when I was forced to go to pep rallies in high school.