Research published last week indicates that President Barack Obama might be more than an inspirational figure for black Americans. During critical moments of the presidential election, familiarity with his achievements appears to have helped study participants overcome the achievement gap seen frequently between black and white test-takers.
The study's design involved 84 black and 388 white participants ages 18 to 55 taking 20-question tests on reading and language arts comprehension that the study's authors administered four times—twice during moments when Obama was less prominent in the media (before he accepted the Democratic nomination and midway between the convention and Election Day) and twice when his accomplishments dominated the news (just after his speech at the Democratic National Convention and just after he won the presidential election). Though the achievement gap between black and white test-takers was substantial when news about Obama slowed, the gap all but closed during his moments of greatest accomplishment.
Ray Friedman, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University and one of the study's three authors, said he and his colleagues began designing the study last summer. Each of the authors had previously conducted research on how race and racial stereotypes affect test-taking and wanted to see whether Obama could influence or even change the norms.
Friedman recognizes that some researchers view the study's results as a fluke, and he says that it will be impossible for others to replicate his findings since there will never be another "pre-Obama" moment to study. He is, however, interested to see if the ebbs and flows of Obama's future successes and missteps produce similar results.
"A figure's ability to inspire test-takers to overcome anxiety induced by racial stereotypes won't eliminate all differences in black-white test-taking, but it is certainly a factor," Friedman said. "What helps close this gap may be as simple as parents getting their kids to think about the extraordinary things Obama has achieved before heading to school to take a test."