Black men say they experienced a mental health boost after Barack Obama’s election, reporting more positive mental health days in the aftermath of November 2008 than they did before he took the highest office in the land. This news comes from recent research from Rice University.
The “symbolic empowerment” of Obama getting elected increased the hope and optimism of black men, according to the “‘Yes We Can!’ The Mental Health Significance for U.S. Black Adults of Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Election” study.
“Hope and optimism spike when members of an aggrieved group believe whatever injustice they face will soon be alleviated,” the study’s authors wrote. “For example, during the 1960s in the United States, the passage of landmark legislation pronouncing racial segregation of public spaces and accommodations illegal was a moment of symbolic empowerment for most blacks. Accompanying the legislation was anticipation that the experience of full citizenship would soon cross the color line. However, we suspect the health significance of symbolic empowerment is short-lived because racial disparities in lifestyles and life chances remain durable and reinforce each other.”
For the study, lead researcher Tony Brown, a sociology professor at Rice, and the study’s co-authors surveyed black men on the stress, depression and other emotional and mental problems they were experiencing 30 days before Obama was elected. They followed up with the same question 30 days after the election. On average, black men said they had four bad mental health days before the election; that number dropped to three after the election.
“The study’s findings are important because we do not fully understand what factors protect mental health,” Brown said. “The findings demonstrate that sociopolitical shifts matter for the health of black men and that everyday conditions of life act as social determinants of health.”
According to Brown, sociologists typically focus on the mental health of a population after negative incidents, such as discrimination, job loss, poverty or disaster. This study stands out because researchers looked at the mental impact of a positive event on black people’s lives and health.
“This is one major reason we pursued this study. We wanted to know if there were any health implications from this momentous occasion in U.S. history,” Brown said.
To demonstrate the significance of this finding, Brown referenced another study examining mental health harm caused when black adults were exposed to nearby police shootings of unarmed blacks. That study’s participants reported a 0.14-day increase in mental health problems.
Interestingly, black women didn’t experience a mental health boost after Obama’s election. In fact, they reported the opposite.
As we get closer to the 2020 presidential election, Brown said health researchers should be aware of how shifts in the sociopolitical climate will come into play. “Groups of voters are symbolically empowered or disempowered by the biography, blind spots and biases of those winning presidential elections,” he said.