- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A black president in the White House means that racial issues in America are just fine now, right?

Wrong, say psychologists who contend that genuine racial equality is a “victim” of President Obama’s victory and that there’s still much work to be done.

“Mr. Obama cited affirmative-action policies as helping him, and some people may be thinking, ‘We don’t need policies such as affirmative action when a black person has been elected president,’ rather than saying, ‘Wow, these policies work,’ ” said Cheryl Kaiser, a University of Washington psychologist who charted social attitudes before and after Inauguration Day.

“Ironically, Barack Obama’s election could turn out to have negative consequences in addressing racial injustices. People’s attention has been drawn to Obama. They are not focused on all of the problems with racial inequity that still need to be addressed,” Ms. Kaiser said.

In a joint project with Tulane University, she surveyed 74 “predominantly liberal” college students to find that the students perceived that a definite goal in racial progress had been achieved. Support for future racial progress and equal-opportunity policies showed “steep declines” after the election, the study found.

The students also had a stronger belief in the proverbial “Protestant work ethic,” that anything is possible with hard work.

Eighty-two percent of the respondents voted for Mr. Obama, 17 percent for Sen. John McCain. In almost equal numbers - 71 percent of Obama voters and 75 percent of the McCain supporters - the respondents said there was “less need for continued racial progress” with Mr. Obama at the helm.

“His election has the potential to reduce prejudice in dramatic, unprecedented ways. Nevertheless, attitudes toward blacks as a whole will not change overnight simply because of the election of a black president,” said John Dovidio, a psychology professor at Yale University. “Attitudes, particularly racial prejudice, which serves a number of psychological and material functions, often have a basic core that is resistant to change.”

Mr. Obama’s election, however, “offers America unique and profound new racial experiences,” which could reshape that attitude, he said.

“So-called studies make assumptions about something that hasn’t happened yet. President Obama hasn’t been in office 100 days, yet there appears to be an expectation that he or what his administration represents is supposed to end modern-day slavery overnight,” said Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and vice president of UNITY:Journalists of Color Inc.

“And I don’t believe for one moment that Obama’s election relieves the press from giving a voice to the voiceless. If it remains true that inequality remains, there will be journalists telling that story,” she added.

Along with the nation’s academic minds, “Still Two Nations,” a March 20 conference at Duke University, brought together myriad experts from Harvard, Cornell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Michigan to examine racial prejudice following Mr. Obama’s election.

“It’s impossible to talk about race solely as a black/white dynamic these days,” said Kerry Haynie, associate chairman of Duke’s political science department. “There’s been great progress over the last 40 years, and there’s still work to be done.”