'Obama Effect' for Black Women?

Will the multiracial administration mean a boost for less-visible black women?

U.N. ambassador Susan E. Rice and the other "Obama women" are redrawing the portrait of power.
Photograph: Illustration by David Cowles.

What’s the viewpoint of the Obama women on how their success might affect other black professionals? I asked them, but the White House was not enthusiastic about administration officials participating in this story. One press secretary told me, “We’re now transitioning out of that phase” to focus on “substantive policy issues.” In my view, the continued existence of the concrete ceiling is, in fact, a substantive issue. But of the 10 or so D.C. women I contacted, only one, EPA chief Lisa P. Jackson, agreed to speak. I read her those dispiriting statistics about black women that had so startled me. “I’m actually surprised as well,” she said. Jackson has always worked in the public sector, and she sees it as historically more welcoming than the private sector to women and minorities. (Her father was a New Orleans postal worker at a time when segregation severely limited the choices of all African-Americans.) The advancement of the Obama women, she says, is “a continuation of a trend, but certainly the largest expansion of it in terms of brilliant women in positions of real authority, [of] leading by example.”

Despite all the obstacles, I’m confident the time will come when the example Jackson and her colleagues are setting will have a ripple effect, when professional-level black women will cease to be seen as unicorns, when we will get the recognition—and visibility—we have earned.

“The Obama administration has given us an image that’s very new today but 20 years from now will be extraordinarily normal,” says Ella LJ Edmondson Bell, associate professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and author of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. “This is the first time in our history that we have been able to get a glimpse of what a multiracial workforce looks like, particularly in the White House.

“But this is just coming attractions,” Bell adds. Demographics are on black women’s side, she says: In less than 10 years, 83 percent of the entering workforce will be composed of women, immigrants and people of color.

But 10 years, 20 years . . . that feels like an awfully long wait.

As with so many other groups who’ve struggled for equality, the younger black women reaping the rewards of an older generation’s efforts often have a sunnier outlook on just how much race matters. And social class can reinforce that buppie bubble: If you’re not the first in your family to get through the door, most likely you’ll have a comfort level around white folks that makes it easier to play the corporate game. That’s true for the age group that I call the Hybrids, those of us who were born from 1959 to 1969 and grew up in the post–Civil Rights, pre-hip-hop period. Not coincidentally, many of the Obama women are Hybrids. Riding the cusp between boomers and Gen Xers, post-segregation and allegedly post-racial, we’re comfortable straddling the line between Harvard and the hood. Growing up as we did next to kids of other colors makes for a worldview radically different from that of our parents, many of whom grew up in Jim Crow America.

“I can run up one side of the culture and down the other, and I can do it with ease and authenticity because I’m not fighting the same battles that my mama did,” says Washington Post journalist Lonnae O’Neal Parker, 42, author of I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work. “I’m taking it for granted that you’re taking my humanity for granted on a basic level.” Her experience is very different from that of Dartmouth’s Ella Bell, 60, who says, “We were the ones who walked in the door, and there wasn’t a welcome mat for us. We had to learn how to survive, how to play the game. We got hurt; we got wounded; we got insulted.”

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