President Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election transformed the racial identities of black college students, according to a study by University researchers published at the end of November.
After collecting data from African American students at Cornell and the State University of New York at Buffalo, Thomas Fuller-Rowell grad ’10 showed that the collective experience of the election prompted more individuals to identify themselves in terms of their race.
According to Fuller-Rowell’s research, participants exhibited increases in their perceptions of public regard — the extent to which they feel their race is well liked — following Barack Obama’s electoral victory.
“Public regard is an interesting dimension because, historically, it has been very low among African American communities,” said Prof. Anthony Burrow, human development, co-author of the study. “So to see increases on this particular dimension is not only interesting, it’s really profound.”
Tony Montgomery ’13, president of the Cornell Democrats, said that while he was not surprised by the study’s results, he was interested in the level of intensity that college students expressed for a presidential candidate.
“For me, as an African American, I took a lot of pride in that election,” Montgomery said. “But also as a Democrat, and as an American citizen, I think there’s a lot to appreciate about his nomination and election.”
Fuller-Rowell began to create the study as an extension of his dissertation, which examined the factors that produced changes in the racial identities of college students over time. The presidential elections approached just before he finished his dissertation.
“[Barack Obama] would have been the first black president, so it was certainly interesting to us,” Burrow said. “This was something that could certainly shape racial identity.”
The researchers gathered data by asking students to complete surveys two weeks before and five months after the election. Participants either agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “Being Black is an important part of my self-image,” and, “In general, others respect Black people.”
In conjunction with the surveys, individuals also had to complete daily assessments in the seven days before and after the election, according to Burrow. The researchers then used the results to determine students’ personal levels of regard for their own racial identity and the extent to which they felt race was an important part of how they viewed themselves.
According to Burrow, similar studies with racial identity in the past have only looked at personal encounters with the reality of race, such as experiencing discrimination or exclusion. He said this study is particularly noteworthy because it examined a nationwide event that had a positive influence on African Americans.
“I think what this has done is that it’s opened up more than just the interpersonal conversations or day-to-day experiences that people can have — that racial identity exploration could be the result of larger social, maybe even socio-political, events,” Burrow said. “It may not be the things that are locally in your environment that you personally experience, but could be things that are happening in a much larger social ecology.”
Begun after the election, the study also found that African American students increased their private regard for their race and their belief that race was an important part of their self-identity. The study also found that participants who considered race a central characteristic of their identities were more likely to explore their own identities.
Looking ahead to the 2012 election, Burrow said he and his peers will consider conducting another study. He added that if President Obama is reelected, it would likely strengthen African American students’ perceptions of public regard.
“I think the important thing is to keep that enthusiasm up … not only about politics, but also about progressive causes, about voting, to get that same turn-out,” Montgomery said. “At the same time, I’m more concerned about getting Barack Obama re-elected as a Democrat because of his principles, not so much about getting him reelected as an African American.”