Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint on The Obama Effect

The psychological boost on African-Americans generated by the election of the nation’s first Black president may be tempered by hard economic times ahead, says Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Poussaint, also faculty associate dean for Student Affairs at Harvard Medical School, is co-author of Raising Black Children, with Dr. James Comer, of Lay My Burden Down, with Amy Alexander, and most recently, Come on People: On The Path From Victims to Victors, with Bill Cosby.

 

What did you make of the election? I thought it was a great historical leap forward for the United States, for African-Americans, for people from diverse backgrounds. I think Barack Obama accomplished an enormous feat. … It’s an enormous testimony to the possibilities of the United States. It also is an indication about how far we have come, perhaps a bit further than particularly African-Americans had imagined. Even those who thought he could win, they were not believing in the polls. They were quietly saying White Americans would never elect a Black man to be president of the United States. They felt that way up until election night. That’s why there was so much utter disbelief among African-Americans that were interviewed and those who were not African-American that he actually won.

What do you think the impact Obama’s election to the White House will have on the aspirations of Black children, and equally important, Black parents who set the foundation for their success?

 

I think it’s going to have a great impact. But the problem will be to capitalize on the inspiration that he’s providing, the imagery he’s providing, feeling better about ourselves because we’re represented in the highest office. But then you need parents and schools to do the concrete kinds of things that are necessary to help their children pursue an education, to achieve and to win. The inspiration will be from Obama in the sense that — you have to be in the game, you have to be ready to put forth the effort to have the opportunity to win and achieve and that you don’t quit. He did what many thought was ‘impossible.’ Many of these young people who feel like they don’t have much of a chance or families who feel that they don’t have much of a chance know that with effort and participation that that might make the major difference in children achieving or not achieving.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis is going to put enormous strains on the Black community, making it very difficult for Black families. The unemployment rate is 6.5 [percent] for the country; it’s twice that for African-Americans. So a lot of them are going to be jobless. They have enormous cut backs in educational funds in nearly all the states and localities which is going to put more pressure on these schools. How are they going to be good schools, if resources are going to be cut back? That’s the same with social services. Social services that support them are also being cut back because of the economic crisis. … You’re going to have the poverty rate of Blacks going up, and what that means, in terms of stress and pressure and making it more difficult for them to achieve and survive, [is] you’re going to have people with a new impetus to want to achieve, but you’re going to have negative forces; worse than they were before to overcome these economic and social problems that they face.

It’s unfortunate. If this were a time of prosperity, I think that Obama’s election would have enormous positive thrust and [it] would propel the Black community forward and would have more and more people on board taking the high road. But, things are happening that we still can’t judge. All of the Black churches, according to the news, are rallying around Barack Obama. They want to help him. They want to set a good example; they want to be good ambassadors. We don’t know how much those types of activities, that type of activism will help negate the negative effect I talk about in terms of the realities.

President-elect Obama, in his Father’s Day speech, has already sent the message to Black fathers to be more involved and for parents to set high expectations for their children. Should we expect more from Obama in terms of those messages?

 

You probably can expect more from him, but I think it’s going to be tempered by the fact he’s going to know the realities of the high rate of unemployment, removal of services and how they’re affecting poor people across the board — whether, Latino, White, but disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos. He’s going to know that one of the things he has to do, which he’s working on, is shore up the economy and get people back to work before he starts pushing personal responsibility. It’s one thing to say that when jobs are available you can compete for, but it’s another thing to say that when there are no jobs … It does put a strain on them to take the high road when they’re being pushed out of the work force and being denied social services that they require.

You have a kind of push-pull situation that’s not in favor of Black people without enormous efforts, enormous barriers to overcome. They still have to stay behind them (their children). We always do, under the worst of circumstances. We did during the Depression. We need help. We need more volunteerism. We need more Black people coming together; that might offset some of it. If Obama’s election means more Black men and women will become middle class or upper middle class and mentor Black youth, that will be a wonderful benefit.

Getting back to Black children, do you see them looking to Obama children Sasha and Malia and looking up to President-elect Obama? It will fill them with pride. There’s an enormous psychological effect. If you wake up in the morning, you’re a two-year-old kid, the president is on TV and the president is a Black man, it begins to shape their image of the world and the image inside of what they think they can accomplish, and increases there own feelings of worth. ‘I am somebody. The president, this man, is running the country. I can run something. I can be in charge. I can get good grades.’ That will be an ingredient of their psyche.

I think what is important, too, is how Obama’s presidency shapes the attitude of Whites and others. In other words, maybe we’ll be treated better, maybe there will be less racial profiling, less overt racial discrimination and even more empathy with the plight Blacks find themselves in. For instance, if Obama’s being elected president changes the expectations of White teachers for Black students, they’ll see this Black student, [whom] before they thought could be a convict, [and think] maybe he can be the president of the United States. We know the expectations teachers have of Black students count a lot, in term of their success. In so far he may reshape racial attitude, it will benefit Blacks indirectly and directly.

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