President Obama is doing something special for African-Americans. He’s not only proving that color doesn’t make a difference in the Oval Office, he’s helping change white America’s view of blacks. As they see Obama in the White House every day, whites, even older Caucasians, are more likely to view blacks as “hardworking” and “intelligent,” according to a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. But Obama doesn’t get all of the credit. That, say the scholars, goes to time and the population growth of younger, less bigoted whites.
“Obama’s emergence, candidacy, and election appear to have had modest effects on whites’ assessments of blacks’ work ethic and intelligence,” says the study, cowritten by Susan Welch, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Pennsylvania State University. Before the election, whites viewed blacks just above the midpoint on a one to seven scale of “lazy” to “hardworking” and a similar scale of “stupid” to “intelligent,” but both popped up a bit after his election, continuing a long trend, Welch says.
Still, the study says, “Obama’s pursuit of and election to the nation’s highest office can be seen as one of those historical events—such as World War II, the civil rights movement, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—that move mass public opinion in a more egalitarian direction.”
Of course, it helped that Obama wasn’t a Jesse Jackson clone. “Obama is the type of black political leader who has been historically most popular among whites—one who was not part of the civil rights movement, who accommodates rather than confronts, and who maintains close personal and political ties to whites,” the study says.
Most remarkable is the acceptance of older whites, who by Obama’s election had the same view of black intelligence and work ethic as younger whites. (Whites generally still think they work harder and are smarter than blacks, the study found.) Two possible reasons: Educated and presumably more tolerant people live longer, and Obama “challenged their prejudices and caused many of them to rethink their image of blacks.”
As for younger whites, the study finds them far less bigoted than earlier generations and wowed by a candidate eager to challenge the political order.
But there is a caveat. If Obama’s presidency crashes, it could have a reverse effect on white views. “The halo effect he appears to have cast on whites’ perceptions of blacks in general might well fade,” the study says.