Color Us Skeptical.

(Or maybe he really is magical.)

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days that they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance.

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.

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.

“Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking,” said Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, one of the study’s three authors. “We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results surprised us.”

The study has not yet undergone peer review, and two academics who read it on Thursday said they would be interested to see if other researchers would be able to replicate its results.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • This article is misleading. There’s all kinds of possible methodological holes here (Geo where you at! I need another psych head to help me tear this shit apart!). First thing I wanna know they say 84 black people took the test out of a total of 472. Were they a representative sample? They said that all the test takers ranged from 18- 63 and were anything from high school drop outs to PhD holders. Well who was who? Which ones were black. Were they evenly distributed across the 4 trials? Were the black subjects matched with white controls of similar age and educational background? Did they control for socioeconomic status and jobs? Of those who had taken the GRE sometime in the past what about practice effects?

    My eyebrow is sky high y’all. Replicate it and then maaaaaaybe I’ll consider it and even then you’ll have a hard time convincing me it’s not just transitory. This all just smacks of the Hawthorne Effect:

    “The Hawthorne effect is a form of reactivity, and describes a temporary change of behavior or performance in response to a change in the environmental conditions, with the response being typically an improvement.”

    In the words of Jay, you need more people.

  • ladyfresshh

    UE – my eyebrow is in the back of my head, i’m looking like whoopie right now

    and i know little about this

    i’d like to know more about the actual test and whether it was the test or the teachers perceptions that changed


  • Hmm… I had the same skeptical reaction after digesting the numbers and varying educational levels, ages, etc. used in this study. I mean… 87 out of 472 subjects? Really? Just that information alone definitely makes me question the results. It seems about as controlled and in depth as a high school science project. But OK, that’s just the article. I’ll give the researchers the benefit of the doubt since this article isn’t the actual published study… and maybe, just maybe… the New York Times article omitted some critical information (although I doubt that). But the concept is worth looking into.

    Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point) wrote about this in his book, Blink. Now I must admit, I’m still in the process of reading it myself, and so far I haven’t read anything that leads me to believe the details of the study will be found in the remaining pages, but his concept is enough to make me want to look for the published article and the results of (any) upcoming studies that aim to replicate its results.

    His theory focuses on the effects of priming. Again, a study of 20 (different) black students taking the GRE. This time some of the students were asked to identify their race before taking the test. The correct answers of the black students that identified their race was cut in half. Gladwell and the researchers conducting the survey claim that being asked their race primed the students to do poorly because it subconsciously caused them to associate all the negative societal stereotypes of African-Americans with themselves and their own intellect and abilities.

    If less than complimentary images of blacks can cause us to subconsciously lower our abilities, then an overwhelmingly positive image of an African-American and his (mostly) overall acceptance by our society could just as likely reverse that effect. Yes we can, ya know?

    Anyway, I happened to be reading Gladwell and this post definitely gives food for thought.

  • Winslowalrob

    When reading this, I automatically thought about the idea of positive identity formation. Everything from black dolls for black kids, black teachers for black students, or Beverly Daniel Tatum’s ‘Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria’. People have made careers trying to prove the importance of a positive identity, however defined, and it would seem that many people on this blog are also in favor of it. This Obama experiment is just another step in that direction. Personally I am skeptical of all of it, but all my progressive comrades are pretty gung-ho about this sort of stuff.

  • geo

    ue: you pretty much summed it up. 18-65, um that’s a WIDE range of folks. and black folks comprising only 18% (i think) of the sample. i seriously doubt there was any random sampling. i wonder if this pool of participants were part of the first round of tests. also, shouldn’t there be a measure assessing the degree of significance (or something similar) participants place on obama and his success? and of course, a variable needs to be manipulated to really examine the cause and effect they’re looking for.

    people are very eager to find empirical evidence of obama closing the gaps between white (as if they are the litmus test) and black folks. we need to let a few years pass before we start making any claims of a shift.

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