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What Has Obama Meant For Black America?

Back in November, after it became clear that he would become president of the United States, Barack Obama stood before thousands of supporters and spoke these words: "Because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America."

The point was undeniable: Mr. Obama's election heralded not just a fundamental shift in U.S. policy, but a change in the way Americans saw themselves. Yet questions linger about the meaning of President Obama's victory, particularly for African-Americans. Yes, America had its first black president. But on a day-to-day basis, how much has really changed?

As Mr. Obama's presidency's hits the 100 days mark, sought out some preliminary answers.

"He was elected at a time of a profound downturn in the economy," noted Alvin F. Poussaint, Professor of Psychiatry at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School and co-author with Bill Cosby of Come On People. Poussaint argues that the economic downturn is to some degree offsetting the positive impact of Mr. Obama's victory for African-Americans.

"The unemployment rate was already high among black people - twice the white rate," he said. "And now it's way up. That means that there are more economic hard times in the black community - more black families are drifting into poverty, despite Obama."

Poussaint pointed out that an economic downturn is correlated with increases in domestic violence, crime and family instability, and that tough economic times mean a reduction in the social services upon which many black families depend.

Mr. Obama's election "may spur [African-American young people] to achieve at a higher level," he said. "The problem is you need more than the inspiration. If the schools are no good, and you can't build on the inspiration and get them to levels of high achievement, if it can't turn around a high school dropout rate of about 50 percent in urban areas for black youth, then these new dreams are not going to be realizable."

And yet the new president has spurred an outpouring of optimism among African-Americans. A CBS News/New York Times poll released Monday found that the percentage of blacks who say that both races have equal opportunities has risen by twelve points since last July. And seventy percent of blacks now say the country is headed in the right direction, up from 21 percent in January.

"There's a new sense of optimism, and a breaking down of many of the stereotypes that have been so profound in this country against African-American males," said Hilary O. Shelton, vice president for Advocacy at the NAACP. Shelton said his organization has generally been happy with the president's policy initiatives, in which, he suggested, "issues of racial diversity are … incorporated into the overall policy agenda."

"I think for many of our students, the morning following the election, they were reenergized," added Charles Adams, the principal of the SEED Charter School in southeast Washington, D.C., where Mr. Obama recently signed Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

Mr. Obama's victory, he argued, changed students' perceptions of what they could achieve. "It's something you were told you could do, but you never really believed it," he said. "I can tell you that from personal experience."

Yet according to Charles Nyantakyi, a junior at New York City's High School of Environmental Studies, the symbolic value of Mr. Obama's victory has its limits.

"Maybe we have more inspiration because we have an African-American president, that shows us that we could do anything, the sky's the limit," he said. "But I feel like it really doesn't change things [on a daily basis]. It's still high school."

At this early point in the president's term, much of the evidence of the social impact of Mr. Obama's presidency is anecdotal, notes Richard Prince, who writes the "Journal-isms" column on diversity issues in the media.

(AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite)
"People have talked about how schoolteachers have told children, 'You wouldn't see Sasha And Malia behaving like this,' or saying 'Barack paid attention in his studies, you should too,'" he said. "It's hugely important having Michelle Obama as a role model, and having the kids as a role model."

The president has addressed black family life directly: Last Father's Day, he gave a speech suggesting too many fathers are "missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men."

Mr. Obama stated "how true this is in the African-American community" and talked about the responsibilities that fathers must embrace.

Poussaint suggests that cultural representations of African-Americans have begun to change under the new president. He said he has noticed more black newscasters on television and a "diminishing of some of the buffoonish types of black sit-coms."

Mike Chapman, the editor of Adweek, said he has not seen a noticeable change in the portrayals of blacks in advertising during the president's first 100 days - though he said a recent trend toward more and better African-American representation, which began before the new president took office, has continued.

"Representation of minorities has increased and improved and is closer to the breakdown of the population, but it's still way off," he said. Chapman noted that a class action suit is being threatened against the ad industry because it employs relatively few minority employees - something that could lead to more jobs at ad agencies for minorities and, presumably, better representation.

The most important component of Mr. Obama's social impact during his first hundred days may be the fact that, amid all the discussion of his policies and priorities, his race has been little discussed.

Mr. Obama is indeed "obviously black," as the NAACP's Shelton puts it, but that fact has not much been dwelled upon. The president himself acknowledged as much last month when asked if his presidency had marked a "relatively color-blind time."

"You know, obviously, at the inauguration, I think that there was justifiable pride on the part of the country that we had taken a step to move us beyond some of the searing legacies of racial discrimination in this country, but that lasted about a day," said the president. "And, you know, right now, the American people are judging me exactly the way I should be judged. And that is: Are we taking the steps to improve liquidity in the financial markets, create jobs, get businesses to re-open, keep America safe? And that's what I've been spending my time thinking about."

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