Obama as a Role Model: Students, Educators Share Excitement

Aloysius Puff is 17. In his short lifetime, the black teen has witnessed the appointment of the country's first and second black secretaries of state and its second black Supreme Court justice. But for a long time, he didn't believe a black person would even come close to the nation's highest office.

Now, President-elect Barack Obama "is stepping it up for all of us, especially blacks," said Puff, of Fort Wayne, Ind. "I just hope us African-Americans realize he's doing it for us, and we should give back and step up -- do what we can do, what we can accomplish."

Across the country, educators, community activists and students are hopeful that the election of Obama, whose mother was a white American and father a black African, will provide much-needed inspiration to black youth.

Obama, the First Black President

Mel Campbell, a Corona, Calif., science teacher who also leads a cultural issues class, said he has seen black students engaged in the election like never before.

"I've got students who don't talk politics who are talking politics, who are talking about futures, who are talking about plans, who wouldn't ordinarily be speaking in those terms," he said. "This presidential election has kicked open [a door] in the minds of our underachieving kids."

After seeing students' excitement about Obama's candidacy, teachers and staff at Ramapo High School in Spring Valley, N.Y., held a late-night election results party at the school Tuesday night. More than 60 percent of Ramapo High School's student body is black.

"I believe that schools can really build on this in so many ways," said Joe Farmer, the assistant superintendent of schools in the area, "and use this as inspiration from the very youngest to the oldest of our students."

Fighting Black Stereotypes

For Vinchessica Gray, 17, a high school senior in Gary, Ind., Obama's achievements are especially impressive because he started out as "an ordinary person."

That, she said, "gives other people of our color more confidence in their everyday life."

Obama also helps fight negative stereotypes of black men, said David Williams, 17, of Corona, one of Campbell's students.

"An African-American like Obama, he shows you can actually obtain an education, you can actually be smart and make a difference," Williams said. "Obama is the perfect role model for all black men."

While educators say that Obama's multicultural background may inspire all students of color, young black males are seen as an especially needy demographic.

At the start of 2008, one in every nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 was in jail, compared with one in 30 among all American men in the same age group, according to the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project. Black males also lag behind black females, Hispanics and whites in employment rates.

Many attribute the underachievement of black males in the United States to the proliferation of fatherless black households, especially in American inner cities.

Samson Davis, 35, was raised by his mother in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J. Growing up, he saw males who were often drug dealers and car thieves.

"They were reverse role models," he said.

Davis and two of his childhood friends grew up to pursue careers in medicine. To combat all the "reverse role models" out there, the trio -- calling themselves "The Three Doctors" -- now travel the country talking to teens about their aspirations.

Davis said Obama's example, should prove especially powerful to inner-city teens.

"When you do your Pledge of Allegiance to the United States, the president is synonymous to that flag. It's a constant reminder -- you have Barack Obama," he said. "When you walk the streets and there are kids on the corner, soliciting to sell drugs, you know that in your arsenal, you have this thought, 'I can be a Barack Obama.' You have that now to smash all those other temptations."

College-Educated Black Role Models

Obama is "living evidence of the value of education for the black students," said Kristin Klopfenstein, an associate professor at Texas Christian University who studies education and economics.

Despite the growth of a black middle class, Klopfenstein said that the typical black child is still rarely exposed to black, college-educated adults.

"The only college-educated folks that black students often see are their teachers," she said.

And in children's eyes, Klopfenstein said, their teachers' achievements may pale in comparison to the star power of successful blacks such as movie stars and rappers often portrayed in the media.

But "Obama doesn't fit into those two types of categories of what people see every day," she said.

His election, she said, will "show kids that you can be charismatic and you can be successful and you can be intellectual and you can be black at the same time."

The Multiracial

There is another demographic that stands to benefit directly from Obama's example -- multiracial youth.

Obama defies the conventional wisdom that people of mixed races can't find acceptance among different communities, said Jenifer Bratter, a Rice University assistant professor who studies multiracial identities.

"What Barack Obama has exemplified in his campaign and his speeches and sort of the way he's represented himself, you can actually celebrate connections to multiple communities and have a coherent public identity," Bratter said.

Bratter is biracial, with a black mother and a white father.

"There's no question -- mixed race youth are watching this and it's very reassuring to see someone like him emerge," she said. "He talks very openly about his white parentage, his Kenyan parentage as well as being raised in Hawaii as well as Chicago, and it all gets bound up in the same narrative. I think for a multiracial person, it's all very inspiring that he can do all that."