In the annals of black marriage, even iconic (albeit fictional) successes like Cliff and Clair Huxtable get drowned out by a constant narrative of gloom and doom. For years, marriage rates have been on the decline, experts say. And for African-Americans, only 41 percent of whom are married compared to 62 percent of whites, the prospect of finding a lifelong partner becomes even more grim.
But while education (or lack of), millennials' fall from the middle class and a culture that prioritizes career over personal achievement have all been blamed for the trend, researchers Cassandra Chaney and Colita Nichols Fairfax, have been exploring another possible cause -- the scarcity of black marital role models in the public eye.
"Within African-American culture, political figures are completely important to the progress, to the cultural integrity of black people, to how we understand ourselves within an American society that has not affirmed Africanism positively," said Fairfax, an associate professor at Norfolk State University, referencing political icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and Rosa and Raymond Parks, among others.
A study she and Chaney co-authored considered whether modern-day counterparts President Barack Obama and first lady, Michelle, could offer the kind of example needed to encourage more black marriages.
"In spite of the many negative and conflict-ridden black male–female relationships that permeate the media ... the Obamas are the strongest and most visible example of black love and happy marriage in the USA," the authors wrote in their study published in the February 2013 issue of the journal Ethnicities.
"The Obamas picked up where the Huxtables left off, except this is no act," one study participant says.
The Huxtables did indeed carve an indelible spot in black relationship history during their eight-year run in the spotlight, but can Barack and Michelle Obama do the same?
To test their theory that the Obamas can change low marriage rates among blacks in the U.S., Fairfax and Chaney, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, surveyed a small, but diverse pool of African-American adults.
Among those surveyed, 82 percent believed that the Obamas' marriage can influence black marriage in three ways. First, by changing marital motivations and stability. "[The Obamas] are very open about their humble beginnings ... so their motivations for getting together was love," Chaney explains. "But out of that love grew similar goals in life and similar ways that they would achieve those goals."
Second, through positive interactions, such as the PDA on display at the inauguration earlier this week. And third, by acting as a positive model for marriage (i.e. talking openly about how they run their family as a team).
"The Obamas really present something very different to black people with regards to how we understand family and community," Fairfax said, also noting the role extended family, including Michelle's mother, Marian Shields Robinson, plays.
The "Obama model" isn't a novel approach -- Washington Times writer Mona Charen presented the theory in her 2008 article "The Good Obama Can Do," -- and the authors say the "Obama model" isn't just for blacks.
"[The Obamas' marriage] has the potential to impact all races," the study says, noting it's an even greater influence on younger people. "Since young voters (18-29 years of age) were the driving force behind the election of President Obama, the Obama marriage may motivate the young, many of whom have started, or are on the brink of starting, families, to adopt many of the traditional values that are foundational in black families."