On Tuesday, I spoke to a room full of beaming high school and middle school boys — about 150, a vast majority of whom were black — at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The talk was sponsored by the Cross and Anvil Human Services Center as part of the heritage lecture series that seeks to present historical, political and educational conversations that honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The group targets “at-risk” boys in the community.
I didn’t sugarcoat things for these boys. I gave them the unvarnished truth, the same way I would for my own boys. For me, it is very important to help children place themselves historically, even when that history is painful, because within that truth they can anchor themselves and from it they can aim themselves.
When my speech was over, we had a question and answer period, and President Obama came up.
I told the boys that whatever else the president does or doesn’t do, his impact on young people of color will most likely be incalculable. As I told them: For many young people like you and like my own children, the first president they consciously registered was Barack Obama, a black man.
That afternoon, I flew back to New York, and that night I watched the president give his last State of the Union address.
The whole time I watched, the image of those boys was in my mind — smart, eager, hopeful. I thought about my 21-year-old son in the next room, still on winter break from college, who voted in his first presidential election in 2012.
I thought of some of the amazing pictures that the White House has released of the president meeting with black folks in the Oval Office, like 5-year-old Jacob Philadelphia touching the president’s hair because, as he put it, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” I thought of all the boys being reached by the president’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program.
These things register in a way that should never be underestimated. As a child, I couldn’t name many politicians, but I knew that P.B.S. Pinchback had been the first and only black governor of Louisiana, my home state; that Thurgood Marshall was a sitting Supreme Court Justice; and that Ed Bradley was one of the most respected journalists on television.
Obama is the first black president — and may well be the last, who knows — and that alone has a historical weight and impact on this generation that will play out for generations to come.
He has not been a perfect president. He has not been as vocal on issues facing the black community as some would have liked (for instance, I thought that he could have more explicitly addressed the Black Lives Matter movement in Tuesday’s speech). Nor has the plight of black America been dramatically altered during his two terms — it will take more than two terms of one president to undo hundreds of years of harm.
But he has simply, miraculously, won the position (twice!) and successfully negotiated the space — so well, in fact, that race is tangential to his record. He has opened yet another door of possibility, erased yet another myth of inadequacy, expanded yet another plane on which children can dream.
Indeed, as The New York Times reported in 2009:
“Now 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.”
As The Times explained:
“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.”
It has become something of a punditry parlor game, particularly as the Obama presidency winds down, to try to gauge how history will judge him.
A 2014 Brookings Institution survey of 162 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section ranked Obama as the 18th greatest.
But Brookings points out:
“Beneath the surface of the aggregate figures lurks evidence of significant ambivalence. For example, those who view Obama as one of the worst American presidents outnumber those who view him as one of the best by nearly a 3-1 margin. Similarly, nearly twice as many respondents view Obama as overrated than do those who consider him underrated. One area where there is significant expert consensus about the president, however, concerns how polarizing he is viewed as being — only George W. Bush was viewed as more a more polarizing president.”
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“The earliest major scholarly poll that included Obama was a 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey, which ranked him as the 15th greatest president. A 2012 Newsweek survey rated him as the 10th best since 1900, and a History News Network survey of historians gave him an overall B- grade in 2013. Statistical mastermind Nate Silver’s meta-analysis of multiple scholarly polls placed Obama at #17, just behind John Adams and before Bill Clinton.”
I believe that, on balance, history will judge this president favorably, but I won’t hazard a guess at a rank.
That said, I’m convinced that one of the biggest impacts this president will have will not be measurable, and therefore, not able to be ranked: his impact on young people like the boys I spoke to in Florida, an impact derived from just occupying his body and occupying the office.
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