Spring 2011

The Black Masculinities of Barack Obama: Some Implications for African American Men

Alford A. Young, Jr.

Alford A. Young, Jr., is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, where he also holds an appointment in the Center for Afro-American and African Studies. His publications include The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (2004). He has two books forthcoming with Rowman and Littlefield: African American Boys and Men: Exclusion and Containment and From the Edge of the Ghetto: African Americans and the World of Work.

Barack Obama’s presidency has stimulated thinking about new possibilities for race relations in America.1 Yet it has also inspired accounts that question whether his election has been overstated as a positive factor for contemporary race relations in this country.2 Indeed, a recent conversation I had with Ronald, an African American man who participated in some of my earlier research,3 confirmed the skepticism of the latter perspective. Ronald and I discussed a number of issues concerning Obama’s election and the possible fate of the African American community before he finally said, “You know, despite the fact that Obama’s election is a change for this country, one thing is the same: everybody whoever held the office of the president was the son of a white woman.”

Ronald’s remarks did not come from frustration or anger. Instead, in a matter-of-fact tone, he simply conveyed his sentiment that what may have seemed like a radical unfolding to some people felt more like a moderate shift to him (and possibly others). Since that talk with Ronald, I have been pondering the potential shifts in the meanings of race in America around the time of Obama’s election. That Obama, like every other president of the United States, is both male and the son of a Caucasian woman has led me to think specifically about how race and masculinity converge in African American men’s views of Obama, a self-proclaimed black man who is, yet is not, like many African American men. More specifically, I was .  .  .


  • 1See Jabari Asim, What Obama Means . . . for Our Culture, Our Politics, and Our Future (New York: William Morrow, 2009); Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “For Obama, Nuance on Race Invites Questions,” The New York Times, February 9, 2010; Kevin Alexander Gray, The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama (London: Verso, 2008); Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe R. Feagin, Yes We Can?: White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign (New York: Routledge, 2009); Manning Marable and Kristen Clarke, eds., Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Gwen Ifill, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama (New York: Doubleday, 2009).
  • 2For example, Manning Marable, “Racializing Obama: The Enigma of Post-Black Politics and Leadership,” Souls 11 (1) (2009): 1–15.
  • 3Ronald is a pseudonym. The research project he participated in, nearly a decade ago, is culminating in a manuscript entitled “Black Men Rising: Navigating Race, Engaging Mobility.” In this work, I explore the views of a small group of African American men in their late-teens and twenties who were born into poverty but engineered paths toward high-skilled blue-collar or white-collar professional careers. I have remained in contact with Ronald over the years since we first worked together.
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