As the United States struggles through its worst economic crisis in generations, gloom has seized much of the heartland. The optimism that came so easily to many Americans as the new century dawned is significantly harder to summon these days. There is, however, a conspicuous exception: African Americans, long accustomed to frustration in their pursuit of opportunity and respect, are amazingly upbeat, consistently astounding pollsters with their hopefulness. Earlier this year, when a Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll asked respondents whether they expected their children’s standard of living to be better or worse than their own, 60 percent of blacks chose “better,” compared with only 36 percent of whites.
Numerous previous polls found the same cheerful confidence. On the eve of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, 69 percent of black respondents told CNN pollsters that Martin Luther King’s vision had been “fulfilled.” Nearly two years later, as America prepared for the 2010 midterm elections, blacks shared little of the disenchantment that had overtaken many whites. African Americans were more likely than whites to say that the economy was sound, found CBS News. And nearly half (compared with 16 percent of whites) thought America’s next generation would be better off.
Over the past few years, pollsters repeatedly have corroborated the phenomenon. Whereas whites are glum, blacks are upbeat—which is remarkable since the economic crisis has hit African Americans with particularly brutal force. Employment among black men, for instance, has dropped to an all-time low. When I asked Harvard Business School professor David Thomas about the CNN poll, he laughed. “It’s irrational exuberance,” he said.
This week, James Verini alludes to the same phenomenon when he asks Is there an Obama effect on crime? But before going to a quote from Verini, its important to set up the premise. I doubt many people are aware that violent crime in urban areas (populated mostly by the poor and people of color) has been declining since the 1990's. Nope, not much in the media on that one. Conventional wisdom has always been that when employment goes down, crime goes up. And yet the downward trend starting in the 90's has grown even stronger since 2008. This leads to questions about why - which are all but impossible to answer conclusively. That's where Verini's question comes in.
Ohio State University’s Randolph Roth, author of the magisterial 2009 volume American Homicide, is so convinced Obama’s election has fundamentally improved black people’s outlooks, in spite of what may be their actual circumstances, he published an essay last year explaining the crime drop with the title It’s No Mystery. “The inauguration of the first black president and the passing of the Bush administration re-legitimized the government in the eyes of many Americans during the first few months of 2009,” he writes. “African Americans and other racial minorities, who live disproportionately in America’s cities, were more deeply affected than anyone else, and it is likely that their greater trust in the political process and their positive feelings about the new president led to lower rates of urban violence.”
Roth is tapping into a line of argument that has been gaining ground in criminology in recent years. Generally referred to as the “legitimacy” theory, it posits that the greater people’s belief in the legitimacy of social institutions and government, the greater their inclination to obey laws. Roth describes it this way: “If people believe that their government shares their values, speaks for them and acts on their behalf, they feel empowered, have greater self-respect and gain confidence in their dealings with people outside their families. When people feel that the government is antagonistic toward them and they question its legitimacy, especially on the national level, they can feel frustrated, alienated, and dishonored.”
The Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, author of a new book on race relations, The Cosmopolitan Canopy, also agrees with the legitimacy argument, but he believes the psychological shift taking place in black people’s minds since Obama’s election is more profound. “Now we have a sense of future,” he says. “All of a sudden you have a stake. That stake is extremely important. If you have a stake, now there’s risk—you realize the consequences of compromising an unknowable future.”
Given the generational trends Cose has identified combined with the fact that violent crime has been decreasing since the 90's, we might be seeing a chicken/egg kind of situation. As Verini says:
Obama could be as much the result of an Obama effect as the cause of it.