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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.”