News Release: Faculty Experts, Politics

Jan. 14,  2009

Inauguration Expert: Michelle Obama to Make History, Challenge Stereotypes

Michelle Obama faces unique pressures and challenges when she becomes First Lady Jan. 20 and makes history in her own right.

"Michelle Obama will be catapulted into the spotlight, perhaps more than any of her predecessors," says Emory political scientist Andra Gillespie.  "Because she is a black woman, many will look to Mrs. Obama for cues about the role of black women in American society."

The racial and gender discrimination many black women face leaves them in precarious social and economic positions that foster stereotypes  and systemic racism. "Having a well-educated, traditionally married, professional, black soccer mom in the White House could go a long way to neutralizing negative depictions of black women in our popular culture," Gillespie says.

However, Gillespie cautions that Obama is not the panacea for all bad stereotypes about black women.

"No individual can or should shoulder that burden... Given the crises facing our country today, it is natural that many Americans are looking to the Obamas for new leadership, both substantive and symbolic.  However, they will not and cannot be the primary change agents, especially with respect to race.  That is our collective responsibility. "

Gillespie is an assistant professor of political science at Emory whose research examines political mobilization and race, as well as competition between minority groups. Gillespie's experience as a pollster and consultant has helped shape her research into what works — and what doesn't — in minority politics today as new leadership emerges separate from the civil rights generation.

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