Barack Obama represents a paradigm shift in American culture. From this point forward we will measure social progress in terms of the pre-Obama and post-Obama world. As the first African American presidential candidate of a major political party, he has challenged the myth of the minority “achievement gap” and turned the meaning of “acting White” on its head.
John Ogbu, the Nigerian-born Berkeley anthropologist, based his life’s work on the cultural theory that the achievement gap between “voluntary” and “involuntary” minorities compared to the majority population forms the basis of a caste-like system in American society.
Involuntary minorities consist of African Americans, Hispanic Americans and American Indians, the traditional ethnic groups who by default do not have an alternative homeland to go back to. Voluntary minorities, on the other hand, consist of the new immigrants, such as, the Chinese Americans, Russian Americans and other ethnic groups who have voluntarily adopted America as their homeland.
Involuntary minorities tend to perform poorly on achievement tests compared to the majority population (NCES, 2008). Due to their “histories of self-perception” involuntary minorities interpret barriers to advancement as “institutionalized discrimination”. In some parts of the country, the well performing minority students may even carry the stigma of “acting White.” Voluntary minorities on the other hand view challenges in this society as opportunities to be overcome.
Obama has confounded these cultural theories and stereotypes by overcoming the race barrier that many African Americans feel still exist in this society, undoubtedly in part due to his biracial background and White working class roots.
However, Obama also represents a growing number of African immigrants, about 1 million strong in the major U.S. metro areas. Part and parcel of the demographic transition sweeping America, these new Africans are not descendants of slaves even though they are often lumped with the African American population.
According to Benjamin Akande, the Dean of the Webster School of Business, some of the notable personalities of the Obama generation include several prominent Africans in America: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in academia; Hakeem Olajuwon and Joseph Addai in sports; and Gbenga Akinnagbe and singer Akon in entertainment.
As an American of Kenyan descent, Obama’s story validates Ogbu’s theory that the caste-like pathologies that plague some segments of the American population can be a barrier, not evident among the new African immigrants. If race is not a real or perceived barrier, we would have already been there and done that! We would have already narrowed the achievement gap. An African American president may have already been anointed, not just on West Wing or in Hollywood movies.
So, many questions persist. In the post-Obama world, can Americans close the achievement gap and regain the competitive edge in the world? With help of a transformational leader like Obama, can we carry what Ogbu calls involuntary minorities across the promise land and shore up our human capital?
In this election season, these are some of the questions voters must ask on the issue of education.