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Political Physics: From the Huxtables to the Obamas


a blogumn by Monique King-Viehland

huxtablesShortly before the Inauguration, Colin Powell was being interviewed about the Obamas arrival in Washington.  “I mean, the Huxtables have come to town,” he said just hours before the inauguration, referring to the beloved African-American family from Bill Cosby’s popular sitcom, The Cosby Show.  Powell gushed, “Look at his family, solid family, accomplished wife, two beautiful little girls, even a mother-in-law moving into the White House.”  Then I turn on The View the morning after the Inauguration and there was Barbara Walters talking about how she thinks the Obama’s will debunk certain stereotypes that some white people may have about black people, comparing Obama’s election to what The Cosby Show did a few decades earlier.

Over the past few weeks I have been bombarded by this comparison between the Huxtables and the Obamas.  The media has been continuously posing this question; will the perceptions of the typical African-American family change because we will get to know in a way, a very personal way, this new first family?

The short answer is yes, but here’s the thing:

obama_family_2006_xmas_cardThe Huxtable’s were not real.  They were characters on a television show.  Did they have an impact on the perception of Black America, yes indeed.  But instead of comparing the Obama’s to them, why not compare the Obama’s to the hundreds of thousands of other middle and upper-middle class black families in America.

There has been a Black middle class in America since before emancipation from slavery.  Although they were more accepted they were still segregated from whites and were also isolated and even scorned by the rest of the Black community.  They developed their own institutions, businesses, and places of worship.

Today, 40% of or 2 million African American households are middle to upper-middle class.

Today, the number of black children being raised by two parents appears to be edging higher than at any time in a generation, at nearly 40 percent.  (Although it is important to note that a lot of successful people come out of single-parent homes, including President Obama, former President Clinton and myself.)

Today, 1.1 million African Americans age 25 and older have advanced degrees (e.g., Master’s, PhD, MD or JD) compared with 677,000 just ten years ago.
Today, there are more than 3 million black college students, up from roughly 1 million fifteen years ago.

Are those numbers lower than the national average?  Yes.  Are they lower than the percentages of White Americans in the same income brackets or white children in two parent households?  Yes.  Do we still have a long way to go?  Yes.  But that does not take away from the 2 million African American families who are less well known than the Obamas, but are here nonetheless and have been for some time – and are far more real than the Huxtables.

And how comical is it that the media who is largely responsible for perpetuating the negative and stereotypical images of African Americans, are now focusing on how the Obamas are countering that image.  I think it is irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the Huxtables and the Obamas in a way that seems to imply there are no other positive images of black families out there because there are.

The real focus should not be on how comparable the Obamas are to the Huxtables, but on the challenges still facing the black middle class in America, on the high rate of African Americans who are struggling to “stay” middle class, on obstacles facing African Americans who are trying to transition into the middle class, etc.  Or how about focusing on the myriad of issues facing the black community as a whole that remain problematic even with the election of the nation’s first “black president.”

Either way, the fact is that the Huxtables were not real.  But the Obamas are, and I do feel so much pride when I look at them.  But I still want America to know that the Obamas are one of many, and although we still have a ways to go, there are a lot of black families just like them across the US.

And they were here pre-Huxtable and will be here post-Obama.