President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last week and the celebration of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day today bring to mind questions about the public health impact of our first African-American president as he enters his final year in office.
I started wondering a few months ago about the psychological impact on black Americans, especially young people, as they anticipate the White House exit of someone of their own race. Many older people of all races may never have even imagined seeing a black man occupy the Oval Office.
It's a hard thing to measure. Following Obama's election in 2008, one study documented an “Obama effect” of improved test-taking performance among African-Americans. Will African-Americans feel dispirited and disempowered when he steps down and is succeeded by a non-black person, during a time of heightened concerns about racial and economic inequality? Could that affect health outcomes in the black community?
It turns out I wasn't alone in thinking about this. Last week, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a piece on this subject following his lecture to a roomful of black male high school and middle school students in St. Petersburg, Fla. After his finished his speech, the students asked about President Obama, and he told them that Obama's influence on young people of color “most likely will be incalculable.”
“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,” Blow wrote. The columnist recalled that as a child, he couldn't name many politicians, but he knew the name of the first and only black governor of his home state of Louisiana, and that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
I could tell that Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director the American Public Health Association, also had been thinking about Barack Obama's legacy when I spoke with him a couple months ago. From a pure health policy perspective, Benjamin pointed to Obama's major contribution in passing the Affordable Care Act to expand health coverage to more people of color. He also cited the president's achievements in increasing fuel efficiency standards and implementing measures to address climate change, which he said will disproportionatey benefit minority groups. “I anticipate that health outcomes will show continuing improvement,” he said.
Like Blow, Benjamin thinks the Obama presidency has had—and will continue to have—much broader effects on young African-Americans and other minorities. And those effects will be strengthened by Obama's continuing activism and high visibility in the social and economic justice projects the president has suggested he will work on after he leaves the White House.
“There's no question about the intangible psychological benefit of his presidency, but it doesn't go away,” Benjamin said. “African-American kids will still get to see him, there will be schools named after him, and he will remain an inspiration.”
Now that the political ceiling for minorities has been broken, Benjamin anticipates that more young blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and gay and lesbian people will go into politics, inspired by the example of Obama and the other people of color he placed in high administration positions.
He also predicts that private citizen Obama will remain a potent defender of his landmark healthcare reform law. “People will continue to try to take the ACA away, but he'll still be a force out there supporting it,” Benjamin said. “I think he will be more empowered. You are always more revered after you leave.”