CHICAGO — Bria Fleming has been through a lot in the last year, including her mother’s hospitalization and job loss and a fire in their home. It’d be enough to get most 18-year-olds down.
But the black high school student is surprisingly optimistic about the future and her chances for a better life — an attitude common among her African-American peers, according to a new nationwide survey of high school students.
“I know kids who’ve been through less and maybe they can’t handle it,” said Fleming, who will head to Florida A&M University in the fall in hopes of eventually becoming a veterinarian. “But my mom always tells me, ‘Work hard, stay positive and you’ll make it.’”
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Slavehouse to the White House
A poll released Thursday by Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., found that 70 percent of black students ages 15 to 18 thought their standard of living would be better than their parents, compared with just 36 percent of white students.
Overall, 39 percent of respondents thought they would have a higher living standard.
Those numbers and the level of optimism among black students appeared to be closely tied to their enthusiasm for President Barack Obama, making for what some called the “Obama effect.”
Asked about the president’s performance, more than two-thirds of black students rated his performance as “good” or “very good,” compared with 23 percent of white students. Overall, about a quarter of the students who were surveyed rated the president highly.
DeQuan Foster, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Newark, N.J., agreed that having someone who looks like him leading the country has strongly influenced his belief in the future and what he can personally achieve.
“You’re always told anything is possible — but when you see it, you believe it. It makes me want to try twice as hard,” said Foster, who’s active in the theater and his local Boys & Girls Club and hopes to start his own entertainment company after college.
It’s an attitude that mirrored the findings of a recent Harvard Institute of Politics survey of 18- to 29-year-olds, and that could have ramifications on November’s midterm elections, said John Della Volpe, the institute’s polling director.
“Young African Americans have this serious afterglow that is not as strong with whites and Hispanics,” Della Volpe said. “And that’s despite (African American youth) having more serious economic concerns.”
The Hamilton College survey involved 818 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors from across the country who were surveyed last month. The poll, funded by the school’s Levitt Center for Public Affairs, has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stephen Wu, the Hamilton economist who oversaw the poll, said he was surprised by the stark difference in optimism among races and that black students’ attitudes appeared to be so tied to their view of the president.
But many students — even in Chicago, the Obama family’s home outside Washington — said they witness the divide all the time.
“It always comes back to Obama,” said Deja Bailey, a 15-year-old African American student who attends the city’s prestigious Walter Payton High School. Even her own friends can’t agree. She said one of them carries a scrapbook about the president and frequently argues with others who say he’s doing a “horrible” job.
The latter attitude also frustrates Foster, the black teen in New Jersey, who wishes his peers had more patience — and more hope.
“Everyone isn’t going to support every decision the man makes. That’s life,” he said. “It’s the same with parents. You may not agree with everything they do, but they have your best interest at heart.”
But others, such as Harry Tsang, a 19-year-old college freshman in Orlando, Fla., said they’re done being patient. Worried about the deficit and government involvement in matters such as health care, the former Obama supporter has started volunteering for Florida Republican Marco Rubio, who’s running for the U.S. Senate.
Tsang, a native of Hong Kong, acknowledges that he was once drawn to the president’s charisma and his message of change.
“It was more about him than the issues. It turns out, it’s not the way I think,” said Tsang, who also joined the Florida Federation of Teenage Republicans, which has seen its membership double to 800 students since Obama was elected.
Harnessing youthful energy was an Obama tactic that led young voters to support him by a 2-to-1 margin.
“Whoever gets that volunteer energy is likely to prevail in the midterm election,” said Paul Loeb, author of the newly updated book “Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times,” which looks at young people’s political engagement.
Of course, a number of Obama’s young white supporters have remained loyal.
Matthew Bischoff, a high school senior from Gilroy, Calif., still has a newspaper from the day after Obama’s election pinned to his bedroom wall, though even he’s not so sure about his level of optimism.
“If I were to wrap this answer simply, I’d have to give an unhelpful, ‘I cannot say,’” Bischoff said. “I find the future that stares me in the face as I prepare to graduate and move onto college too veiled behind change to give a solid answer.”
Bischoff, who turns 18 in September, does plan to vote in the November midterm election.
But he may be among the minority.
The Harvard Institute of Politics survey released last month found that among 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed, a third of whites and just 18 percent of Hispanics planned to vote in the midterm election.
That compares with 41 percent of African Americans who said the same.
“So I think they become an even more important cohort than they were, frankly, in 2008,” said Della Volpe, the Harvard polling director.
That’s as young voters. When it comes to their future, and their standard of living, others hope the optimism truly will equate to a better life for young African Americans.
Among them is Dr. William McDade, a surgeon and an associate dean at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine who recruits and retains minority students.
“My hope is that this optimism can turn to realism,” he said, “so that students can learn how to overcome the barriers they might encounter.”