American History as It Happened

MODULE EIGHT: 1991-Present

DBQ Essay


Directions:The following prompt asks you to write a well-organized, concise essay that integrates your interpretation of Documents One through Eight and your knowledge of the period referred to in the question. The best answers will not only cite key pieces of evidence from the documents but also include outside knowledge of the period.

DBQ: Despite the many acts of racism reported across the United States in the years before, during, and after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, his victory as the first African American president in U.S. history was a sign that the nation had entered a new era in race relations.

Based on the question and the documents, students might come up with a thesis along these lines:

THESIS: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was one of many signs that attitudes about, and opportunities for, racial equality in the United States have changed for the better over the past 50 years. Despite his election, however, underlying racial biases and violence against African-Americans are still widespread.

EXAMPLES of supporting arguments that could be derived from documents:

Document 1/Chevigny: The videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police brought attention to the pattern of police brutality against African-Americans. The excerpt, written in 1992, raised a key question: “Are such incidents declining in the nation?” More than 25 years later—and a decade after Obama’s first electoral victory—numerous instances of violence against unarmed black men have shown that the answer is still “no.”

Document 2/Unsigned: The Million Man March offered African-American men the chance to gather publicly and affirm their values. The response of “white Washingtonians” to stay home in fear of violence demonstrated ongoing racial concerns and bias, but the peaceful march also reinforced the right, and ability, of black men to claim their place in American society.

Document 3/Younge: Changes in poll results over the past 60 years support the idea that increasing numbers of US whites will vote for African-American candidates. This attitude change means that black political candidates can hope to win elections even in white-majority districts—and open the door to greater diversity in government, which can help bring about a new era in American politics.

Document 4/Unsigned: Barack Obama’s victory in 2008—in which an African-American candidate received votes from 40 million white Americans—was a sign that race relations in this country have been transformed. However, Obama’s extraordinary political skills suggest that this breakthrough in public opinion was tied more to a unique individual than to any vast shift in public attitudes.

Document 5/Harris-Lacewell: In addition to demonstrating a change in white attitudes, Obama’s election gave many African -Americans the feeling that their contributions to the nation had been acknowledged. Obama’s election did not remotely deal a death blow to racism—but it did provide a model, and an impetus, for a different future for black-white relations in the US.

Document 6/Foner: Dylann Roof’s justification of his murder of nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, was based on racist myths that still have numerous adherents. The continuing support for public display of statues of “Confederate generals, Klansmen, and segregationists” by a sizable number of Americans indicates that racism retains its powerful hold on many Americans.

Document 7/Armstrong Dunbar: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which occupies a prominent place on the Mall in Washington, D.C., confirms the importance of the black community to American history. Devoting a major national museum to teaching and celebrating black history is another sign of—and step towards—changing attitudes and bringing about greater racial equality.

Document 8/Baptiste: The acquittal of George Zimmerman, as well as the death of Michael Brown and other high-profile police shootings, are reminders of continued racial bias and violence against African-Americans. While the Black Lives Matter movement arose as a response towards the grief, it is also a “new era in the struggle for racial justice” and a commitment towards combatting racism and violence towards black people.

Here are examples from the documents that a student might offer that would fit the question:

  • Racial bias and violence against African-Americans are still widespread (1, 2, 6, 8)
  • African-Americans continue fight for racial justice and to protest against racist attitudes (2, 5, 8)
  • Significant breakthroughs in American race relations and in white American attitudes towards African-Americans have occurred (3, 4, 5, 7, 8)









The specifics above will help you determine if students have responded to the DBQ with appropriate information. In addition, the College Board offers the following comments on what characteristics define an excellent response to a DBQ prompt.

According to the College Board, excellent DBQ essays should do all the following:

  • Contain an evaluative thesis that establishes the student’s argument and responds to the question. The thesis must consist of one or more sentences located in one place, either in the introduction or the conclusion. Neither the introduction nor the conclusion is necessarily limited to a single paragraph.
  • Describe a broader historical context immediately relevant to the question that relates the topic of the question to historical events, developments, or processes that occur before, during, or after the time frame of the question. This description should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Explain how at least one additional piece of specific historical evidence, beyond those found in the documents, relates to an argument about the question. (This example must be different from the evidence used to earn the point for contextualization.) This explanation should consist of more than merely a phrase or a reference.
  • Use historical reasoning to explain relationships among the pieces of evidence provided in the response and how they corroborate, qualify, or modify the argument, made in the thesis, that addresses the entirety of the question. In addition, a good response should utilize the content of at least six documents to support an argument about the question.
  • Explain how the document’s point of view, purpose, historical situation, and/or audience is relevant to the argument for at least four of the documents.

For more guidance about evaluating responses to a DBQ essay, download this PDF, which includes scoring guidelines.