January 23, 2009
The Obama Effect
From today’s New York Times:
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.
Posted by Jerome Doolittle at January 23, 2009 01:28 PM
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…
In the study made public on Thursday, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers during last year’s presidential campaign.
In total, 472 Americans — 84 blacks and 388 whites — took the exam. Both white and black test-takers ranged in age from 18 to 63, and their educational attainment ranged from high school dropout to Ph.D.
On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks, Dr. Friedman said. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, and just after his election victory, black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.
As encouraging as this might be, in an earlier career, I used to drive many clients to Social Security disability hearings from the poorest parts of the rural South to a local state capital 50 miles away. Many were African Americans and I would often get detailed lfe histories in this drive, particularly in the realm of my clients educational histories. Since education and ability to perform tasks requiring an education were part of the basis on which persons are judged as to whether they meet the strict requirements of a disability under the Social Security Act, these interviews helped me to gain great understanding of the problems that generations of the children who were raised by persons who never had any opportunity to gain a decent education. We are one or two generations removed from a whole generations of Americans who started school in very late fall (after all da' crops got in you know) and started school in about March or so when "da' planting time came around". On top of at most 4 month school years, I was in what is known as the Corridor of Shame where many of the Brown vs. Board of Education cases began. This kind of educational neglect has not been cured yet in subsequent generations of children of the most uneducated members of our society, for whom reading and writing, or just the ability to sign one's name was often gained by the lucky consequence of having the right relatives or knowing someone who cared enough to help with giving people a modest education at home. And it won't be cured if we simply rely on only "the family" to solve it. Those southern blacks who were educated and stayed behind in the South to help their lesser brethren were often the only chance at success many people had.
The schools for many of these persons up to the 1930's and 1940 and even into the fifties were vastly inferior to the white schools in the same areas. This wasn't remedied until beginning in the early 1960's when small steps were taken to eliminate the problem of inadequate funding. Johnson's war on poverty helped the most, but all the money in the world couldn't and won't solve these still lingering problem as long as segregation exists It still exists, now in many parts of the country due to segregated housing policies that have poor people living in pockets of poverty and those pockets then are used as a tax base to fund local schools. Not that there hasn't been a vast improvement in education for minorities.
So as encouraging as this sounds, we have a very long way to go. In the South in most largely African American schools, the SAT scores in many minority area are sometimes dramatically lower. Much of it has to do with the fact that you can seldom undo educational deficiencies in a family setting. Education begins the moment the child is brought into the world. It's hard for me not to notice that Obama was raised by a middle to upper middle class, educated, often liberal white family. Had he been poor to the grandson of a poor sharecropper, white or black, his chances at success would have been greatly diminished.
However, I do believe that we have failed to try many remedies which educators would be more knowledgeable than I am to discuss. However the parents alone can't cure the problem, the educators alone can't fix the problem, it will take caring communities who understand these problems and more to solve our educational problems.
We could cure the SAT problem in the African American schools overnight though. Let the best of our brilliant poets, the Rap Musicians in America create the SAT tests from now on. I guarantee you that we could eliminate the SAT problem in African American schools and create problems with children who can't "measure up" in Republican school districts overnight. Not that I'm advocating such a program, I would just like to see it done as an experiment one time. It might teach everyone something about education in America as it currently exists.
The problem also exists in pockets of white poverty in the South. Joe Bageant has written about that side of the problem and how he was put in the dumb section of his Virginia class when he moved to Winchester Virginia from West Virginia.
I saw the problem through the eyes of a white child growing up during the turbulent 1960's in South Carolina. And there are many other viewpoints other than mine, although I hope I have offered a tiny bit of clarity to a very complex situation that will take generations to completely resolve. If we ignore it or allow ineffective money making programs such as "No Child Left behind" to continue, these endemic problems will never get solved.