- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

He’s already the No. 1 man in the Democratic Party. In November, he hopes to become the No. 1 man for the entire nation.

But is Sen. Barack Obama the No. 1 man among black youth, particularly boys?

Is he as much of a hero and role model as, say, LeBron James or Jay-Z? Could he help make school cool the way James inspires youths to become hoop players?

“That’s tricky,” says Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a longtime collaborator with Bill Cosby on “The Cosby Show” and most recently the book “Come on, People: On the Path From Victims to Victors.”

“In some ways, he might. Senator Obama - just like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice - shows blacks there are openings at the top. It sends a message to black kids that they, too, can get there,” says Dr. Poussaint, a psychiatrist and director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

Says Sheri L. Parks, associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland: “You aspire to what you can see.” With Mr. Obama’s tremendous media exposure, how could you avoid getting a glimpse?

“He’s definitely a role model,” Ms. Parks says. “He’s shown us - while America was looking for him to become an angry black man - that he is resilient and smart.”

Stephanie Timmons-Brown, executive director of the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement and Urban Education at the University of Maryland, says Mr. Obama’s first-rate education and speedy rise in politics provide a “teachable moment” that, in the end, can help “bolster African-American kids’ views of themselves.”

“Parents can easily point to him and say, ‘See what education can do for you,’” says Ms. Brown, who has a doctorate in education. “I think he provides another tangible option for kids. ‘I can be a rap star or the next Michael Jordan. Or maybe I can be a senator?’”

Or a president?

That is the role of a symbolic role model - to inspire, Dr. Poussaint says.

“Do I think an Obama presidency will reduce the crime rate? I don’t think so,” he says. “‘The Cosby Show’ didn’t stop crime, but it inspired black kids to go to medical school.”

Along with inspiration, however, youngsters need people in their immediate surroundings to help them with the day-to-day academic road map.

“It takes immediate influences like teachers, mentors, Boys and Girls Clubs, parents,” Dr. Poussaint says. “Kids need to know how to get [to academic success].”

Dr. Poussaint knows this topic firsthand, having grown up in East Harlem in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was one of eight children, and his parents never finished high school.

“Sure, they were role models, but they couldn’t really help me,” he says.

So others stepped in. A teacher and a sister-in-law were instrumental.

“They took an interest and reinforced my academic work,” he says.

Dr. Poussaint also thinks a possible Obama presidency will mean indirect improvements for black students.

“If the president of the United States is African-American, it brings a new status to the entire group,” he says, “and teachers will have higher expectations, and that’s a good thing.”

Still, it’s an uphill climb for any politician to become a hero in the minds of children and teens.

“Young people certainly don’t look to politicians for role models,” says Rob Callender, trend director at Teens Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based group that does research on teen behavior.

This is particularly the case after all the recent sex scandals involving politicians such as former Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, and Sen. Larry Craig, Idaho Republican, he says. “That’s just not where they’re going to look for their heroes.”

Mr. Obama, though, just might be bucking that trend.

On a recent morning, on their way to Hine Junior High School - in a traditionally black, low-income school district in Southeast Washington - a couple of 13-year-olds offer their views on role models in general and the Democratic presidential nominee in particular:

“My role models? My mom and my dad and Obama,” says 13-year old Joshua Williams, who says his favored future job is as a CIA agent.

Adds Elijah Snowden, 13: “My dad and Obama. … He’s going to be the next president.” And what is Elijah going to be when he grows up? “I’m going to be president of the United States.”

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