President Obama and the ‘First Black’ Syndrome

8/29/2012, 9:36 a.m.

Research suggests subtle racism in everyday interaction reinforces stereotypes, expectations.

Adulation and the perks of celebrity should accompany becoming the first of your race or ethnic group to achieve international acclaim or political power.

That’s probably what confused Gabby Douglas, the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the individual all-around gymnastics competition.

Instead of unified praise, some decided that the 16-year-old Virginia native’s hairstyle was more noteworthy than her history-making achievements at this summer’s London Olympics.

Perhaps this is the baggage that comes with being a “black first” – hyper-scrutiny rarely bestowed on one’s non-black counterparts.

Research by Columbia University psychologists suggests the racial scrutiny blacks face in daily interracial and intercultural interactions – on the validity of their credentials, their schooling, and even their birth certificates – comes from the prevailing assumption among non-blacks that African Americans are not supposed to do better than whites.

Most of those polled in Loop 21’s State of the Black Economy survey believe that this is why President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander-in-chief, is held to a higher standard than his predecessors.

“[People] are astounded that we [African Americans] have achieved so much,” said Jessie Carney Smith, the author of an expansive anthology on African American achievement, aptly named “Black Firsts,” and who the first black person to receive a post doctorate degree from the School of Library Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Smith, the Dean of the Library at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically black institution, said she could only assume that other African Americans, like her, have learned to cope with the sting of being labeled an exception to their race and the baggage that accompanies it.

Rightly or wrongly, many felt being the first black president came with the expectation that Obama would improve the conditions of African Americans and other disadvantaged minorities. Earlier this month, Obama unflinchingly shot down a Black Enterprise reporter’s assertion that he had not done enough to support black businesses.

“I’m not the president of black America,” Obama said in the BE interview. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”

Obama bears the weight of the presidency in ways that George W. Bush did not; he’s expected to usher in an era of prosperity and safety for all Americans, while catering to the needs of the black community and having his legitimacy constantly challenged by people made bitter by his accomplishments. Arguably, no president has ever been saddled with those burdens.

One source of those burdens is what researchers call an often unintentional tendency by non-minorities to apply racial stereotypes to people of color, even for the most extraordinary of individuals. Black firsts are held to a higher standard by whites ­— and at times by blacks, too. But studies find that they, like all minorities, are often subjected to a less visible form of racism, resulting in the belief that blacks must work twice as hard as whites to even be considered average.