During a visit to the White House, a young boy touches President Barack Obama’s hair to test if it feels like his own.  (Pete Souza/White House)

WASHINGTON — For Alem Hailu, African studies professor at Howard University, President Barack Obama’s election has the potential to inspire a cultural phenomenon and impact a generation.


Having an African-American male in one of the most powerful leadership positions in the world has created a new image and standard of achievement for many black men, says Hailu. He compared Obama’s appointment to the “cultural shock” of the television series, “The Cosby Show” from the 1980s. People were skeptical, he said, about the portrayal of a financially stable, wholesome, close-knit African-American family full of educated professionals, because many thought it was unrealistic.


Obama’s re-election, Hailu said, was even more important than “The Cosby Show” because it confirmed that Americans are attempting to distance themselves from a history of prejudice and discrimination toward minorities.


“The first election and the second, obviously, were a big advertisement, because people would see America lecturing on democracy, on equality, on the negative values of injustice,” Hailu said. “But segregation belied the idea of democracy. But this, this was the fruition of that dream.”


Washington, D.C., native Brian Winfrey agreed. The negative images of violence, laziness and ignorance that are often subtly or overtly associated with black men are beginning to dissolve.


“I just saw a picture that one of my friends posted from 100 years ago to today … Below was a picture of a lynching, I believe it was somewhere in Texas, and above was a picture of President Obama, and he was getting into the motorcade,” Winfrey said. “When I saw that, it made me pause for a second and realize that the amount of progress going on in just a few short generations has been amazing, and I’ve definitely been a beneficiary of the progress.”


According to NBC exit polls, an overwhelming majority of black Americans, around 93 percent, voted for Obama. Hailu, who helped campaign locally for the president, said he was skeptical about Obama winning the election in 2008, despite Obama’s high poll numbers among minorities. The same polls showed 70 percent of Latino voters and 40 percent of white voters voted for Obama, making for a diverse electorate.


“I was very much a fan, but, like everyone else, I didn’t think it would happen,” Hailu said. “But it was a pleasant surprise, a shock when it happened.”


Young black men now have an example to emulate, he said: a young boy who grew up in a single-parent, low-income household and became president of the United States. Obama’s story is one that defied odds, and has resonated among many of his male students and mentees.


“We’re no longer a victim of circumstance,” said Washington native Antonio Johnson, 25. “Now, we create our own circumstance. If there’s anything you wanna do, if you focus hard enough, you can do it.”


Earnest DeLoach wanted his young son to see Obama sworn into office for the second time. He, along with his wife and son, traveled from Orlando, Fla., so his son could witness what he described as a momentous, life-changing experience.


“We were here four years ago for the first inauguration, and that was a great experience,” DeLoach said. “But, being here now means even more to me as an African-American father, to have a young son that knows that the president is a black man who looks like him.”