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.
This echoes research that has been extensively reported in Greater Good. For instance, in the summer 2008 issue, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton describes how stereotypes hinder the test performance of negatively stereotyped groups and help the performance of positively stereotyped groups.
"The good news is that we can reduce achievement gaps by teaching students that their academic ability is something they can work on, not something fixed by their DNA," concludes Mendoza-Denton. "The better news is that these interventions also seem to 'lift all boats'—that is, everyone's achievement seems to benefit. And the best news may be that changing students' notions about fixed ability may itself lay the groundwork for reducing prejudice: If genes alone don't dictate how smart we are, it makes much less sense to believe that people's ability depends on their race, ethnicity, or gender."
About The Author
Jeremy Adam Smith is Web Editor of the Greater Good Science Center and a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Justice and Journalism. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Rad Dad, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a 2010-11 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!