'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

African-American women are a major force in the Obama administration. They have big jobs (U.N. ambassador, FDA head, EPA chief and more). But will their success help other, less visible black women break down doors? Teresa Wiltz reports.

by Teresa Wiltz

Will the multiracial administration mean a boost for less-visible black women? Includes an exclusive Web extra.

Watching the Democratic National Convention on my couch last year, I felt like such a geek, getting all choked up and teary as Michelle Obama spoke. As stereotype busting goes, this was a classic moment. It wasn’t so much what she said —although her words were wonderful—as what she symbolized: black excellence, black female excellence. As I would later find out, I wasn’t the only one crying. Michelle was representing all of us brown-skinned, dual-degreed, corporately employed integration babies. Watching Michelle, I felt that at last the world could see that we’re not neck-rolling, finger-snapping sistas with an ax to grind. That she isn’t—and we aren’t—as one political pundit put it, “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress.”

But then it turned out that Michelle was just the beginning. The newly minted president proceeded to pick one African-American after another for high-power positions, from White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett to Susan Rice (United States ambassador to the United Nations) to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, to surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin, MD (whose appointment was, at press time, still awaiting Senate confirmation).

For many of us, this apparent tsunami of highly visible black women has been great news but no great surprise. Seeing these women—standing with the president, holding forth on the Sunday morning talk shows or looking glamorous at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (the first at which a black woman, comic and former National Security Agency employee Wanda Sykes, emceed)—I thought, well, of course. After all, they look a lot like my friends and me.

Like me, the “Obama women,” as insiders have named them, are part of a generation of accomplished black women. Living in my buppie bubble, I was surprised that so many non-black people were surprised that there was such a deep bench of talent for Obama to draw from. For although Jarrett, Rice and the others are exceptional people, among black women they are not the exception.

Let me be clear: Not many individuals, black, white, brown or other, achieve that level of power, whether at the White House or at Xerox. And yet there are hundreds of thousands of us, highly qualified and highly educated, available to be tapped. As the first lady told Time magazine, “My mother said this in an interview and I completely agree with her, and it’s something that, you know, I want young people to remember. [She said] Michelle and Barack aren’t new; there are thousands of [them] all over this nation. And that is true . . . I know them, I’ve gone to school with them, I live with them. So the truth is, there are thousands of role models like me. I just happen to be the first lady.”

“We’re not unicorns,” concurs Tanya Chutkan, 47, an attorney who is a partner specializing in litigation and white collar criminal defense at the high-profile Washington, D.C.– based law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. “We do exist. People always say, ‘Oh, your mother must be so proud.’ And I say, ‘Actually, she’s a lawyer too.’ ”

So we’re here, and we’re waiting—but will we now, finally, ascend? Will the Obama women have a trickle-down effect on how the rest of us are perceived and, ultimately, employed? Some say yes. Already we’re seeing some zeitgeisty changes on the cultural landscape: More black women on the cover of Vogue (so far this year: Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and model Liya Kebede—a big contrast to 2008, when the only person of color who appeared on the cover was LeBron James). Then there’s BET, long known for its booty-shaking music videos, which recently announced plans to launch CENTRIC, a new channel targeted to upscale midlife black Americans. It is, apparently, now hip to be middle-aged, gifted and black.

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