Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Obama Effect

By Bonnie M. Davis, Ph.D.

Last month, I watched the inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama. He is a role model for all of us in so many ways. However, the fact he is the first African-American U.S. president means there is finally a visual role model of a Person of Color at the highest level of power in this country. This changes all of us - Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, White - and we are speaking out. I can look into the eyes of my first grandchild who has four grandparents who all look different - Mexican, Black, Puerto Rican, White - and believe her world will continue to change.

We have not yet achieved a post-racial society, as some are saying, but I believe this election has opened the door to the possibility. It won't be in my lifetime, but I also believe Eva will grow up to greater possibilities in a multi-colored spectrum of power holders.

The world is changing. Role models matter.

I've heard some say having role models of their own color or gender is not all that important. Yet when I hear these comments, they usually come from those who often see themselves portrayed as power brokers.

It reminds me of my recent television viewing. I did a lot of it in December and January when I was laid up with pneumonia. I noticed again and again how prime time shows mostly center around men, and movies shown in prime time mostly have male protagonists. In fact, so much so, that when The Jane Austen Book Club was shown, and I watched a movie with mostly women stars, I was struck by how different it felt to see my gender monopolizing the film. Perhaps not a perfect comparison to our political and racial situation at this time, but it is one that points out to me the necessity to see ourselves, no matter who we are, in positions of power reflected back to us.

Now when millions of school children look at President Obama, they see a role model who looks like them. Does it make a difference? I think it does. In fact, there is a study out (already!) that says it does. It is called The Obama Effect and was described in an article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times on January 23, 2009.

The study is authored by three professors and has already drawn comments by Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson, a Harvard professor who studies the factors that have affected the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. Initially, when 472 Americans took the test last summer, there was an achievement gap between whites and nonwhites. But on the tests administered immediately after President Obama's acceptance speech and just after his election victory, black performance improved, making the white-black gap "statistically nonsignificant."

We'll have to wait to see how and if The Obama Effect plays out in our classrooms, but in the meantime, there are things we can do:

• Set classroom discussion norms, and then allow your students to discuss what this presidency means to them.
• Continue to post pictures of role models from all backgrounds throughout your school.
• Teach your students media literacy. Ask students to observe the ethnicities and genders of the experts used by the media. Who are the power brokers? How do the media mold our perceptions?

It is truly exciting to be in the field of education in these times. So much change and so much opportunity. Please contact me with suggestions you would like to share.

I'm looking forward to spring, good health, and a time when all students see themselves successfully portrayed in all walks of life.

© 2009 Bonnie M. Davis

Bonnie M. Davis is a teacher, consultant, presenter, mentor and writer. She heads A4Achievement Consulting. To learn more about her work, visit

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