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The mind works in mysterious ways: unconscious race bias & Obama

By Gregory S. Parks & Matthew W. Hughey


On Tuesday, January 25, 2010, Arab television network Alhurra interviewed Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA).  During the interview, Congressman Moran stated that Republicans made big gains this past November because “a lot of people in this country . . . don’t want to be governed by an African American.”  To some, these statements were not only controversial, but false.  This is because we live in a supposedly post-racial America since the election of our first black President.  For example, the 2008 voting booths had barely cooled before the Wall Street Journal proclaimed that Obama’s victory meant that we could “put to rest the myth of racism as a barrier to achievement in this splendid country.”

There have been sweeping changes in legal equality between blacks and whites since, say, the 1950s.  Moreover, white’s racial attitudes have also shifted during that same period. For example, in 1958 most whites indicated that they would not vote for a well-qualified, black presidential candidate; by 2007, almost ninety-five percent said they would.  Measuring racial progress and determining the degree to which race actually matters in America, however, is not simply—or even best—reflected in people’s expressed racial attitudes as measured through surveys.  Rather, a better measure might be the examination of people’s automatic, if not unconscious, racial attitudes.  This includes how Americans decided whether to vote for, weigh the policies of, and even re-elect the first black President.

For over the past quarter century, psychologists have found that people make automatic associations between black and white racial categories, and negative and positive words, respectively.  Even where individuals appear to harbor explicit, racially egalitarian attitudes, their unconscious racial attitudes may be wholly inconsistent.  Numerous studies find that anywhere from 75-90% of whites, roughly 65% of Asian and Latino/a Americans, and from 35-65% of blacks harbor these automatic, unconscious, pro-white/anti-black biases.  Not only do college first-year students—the typical participants of university-based psychological studies—harbor these biases; studies show that judges, lawyers, physicians, black professionals, and a broad swath of the American public hold these biases as well.  These biases are important because the influence judgment, decision-making, and behavior.

More specifically, the rhetoric against and opposition to candidate Obama can be traced, at least in part, to these unconscious anti-black biases. Undoubtedly, many conservatives probably would not have voted for candidate Obama simply because of his political leanings, party affiliation, and policy positions.  However, this point does not provide an end to the analysis of whether race matters in how Americans are influenced by Obama’s race. With regard to the run-up to the 2008 election, there are some important things to contemplate:

First, liberals and conservatives do not differ much with respect to their unconscious racial biases.  But while there is little difference between conservatives’ explicit and unconscious racial biases (both being relatively high), liberals have relatively high unconscious—but low explicit—anti-black biases.  Comparatively, conservatives’ greater consistency in their unconscious and explicit social evaluations suggests that they may be more inclined than liberals to use their unconscious biases for explicit judgment, including voting.  Second, the rhetoric around whether or not Obama is a “legitimate” American citizen appears to have substantial roots in his race. For example, in one study, participants were shown images of black and white, American Olympic athletes.  Participants found the black athletes to be more recognizable.  Nonetheless, the participants unconsciously associated American symbols with the white, rather than the black, athletes.  In another study, participants unconsciously associated American symbols with Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair (yes, the British Tony Blair) than with Obama.  In a third study, when subliminally primed with American symbols, participants’ attitudes toward Democrats remained unchanged.  Their attitudes toward blacks, generally, and Obama, specifically, became more negative.  Accordingly, whites seem to associate being American—which the POTUS must quintessentially be—with whiteness, something Obama is not.  Concerns about whether Obama is unpatriotic—concerns of the far-Right and the Tea Party movement—seem to have their roots in Obama’s race.  In a recent study, researchers found that participants responded the criticism with a diminished preference for and more negative beliefs about Obama, but only when they were subliminally primed with African–American, as a racial category.  As such there should be no surprise as to the rise of the birther movement and lingering questions as to whether President Obama is actually an American and whether he is committed to American ideals. Third, two studies specifically found that independent of political conservativism and self-reported racial attitudes, unconscious race bias predicted whether or not individuals voted for Obama.

As to Congressman Moran’s contention, there is no research on point that lends itself to support his claim.  Nonetheless, one recent study found that participants with higher levels of implicit pro-white associations took greater issue with a proposed health-care plan when the plan was represented as Obama’s but not when the exact same proposal was represented as Bill Clinton’s plan.  This research suggests that the fall-out over “Obama-care,” at least for some, had less to do with the government taking over health care and more to do with the racial background of the President.  As to reverberations felt by Congress members who supported President Obama’s agenda, theoretical research which imports the legal doctrine of third-party associative discrimination into the political contexts, suggests some Democrats may have indirectly felt backlash from those who held unconscious race biases toward president Obama.

Looking forward, race will likely matter just as much—if not more—during Obama’s re-election campaign than it did during his first run for President.  Moral currency research suggests that when people do good in one instance it may later, in their mind, justify them doing bad.  For example, in one study President Obama’s election lead to both an increased perception among participants that racism is no longer an issue and their decreased support for policies designed to address racial inequality.  In another study, participants who endorsed Obama were more likely to engage in discrimination against blacks and in favor of whites on experimental tasks.  That being said, whites who cast their ’08 vote to get us to a post-racial America may feel as though Obama’s election did just that.  Moreover, they may unconsciously see themselves as having “done their part” in making post-racialism a reality.  Accordingly, they might not be as generous with their vote for Obama the next time around.

Gregory S. Parks, PhD, JD is a lawyer, living and working in Washington, D.C.
Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University.
They are the editors of The Obamas and a (Post) Racial America?.

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Recent Comments

  1. Nate Stearns

    This is really frustration. You mention a blizzard of studies but don’t clearly cite one of them. Can you provide links or at least citations so I can track some of these down?

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