May 13, 2008


The Big Race: Obama and the psychology of the color barrier. (John B. Judis, 5/28/08, The New Republic)

Many social scientists had long rejected the possibility that humans might harbor unconscious attitudes different from their conscious behavior. But, in trying to explain the persistence of racial prejudice, political psychologists were forced to hypothesize different levels of awareness and motivation. On the highest level was public moral reflection guided by social norms--which led to Trent Lott being pilloried when he famously said in 2002 that, if Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond had been elected president, the country could have avoided "all these problems." Beneath this, however, was a realm of knee-jerk opinion that might contradict a person's moral reflections; and still beneath that were unconscious attitudes, which, like a person's knee-jerk opinions, were often at odds with his or her public moral reflections. If racial prejudice persisted, it was on these deeper levels.

Political psychologists devised new tests to uncover these sentiments. First, they crafted survey questions aimed at unearthing what they called "symbolic racism," "modern racism," and, most recently, "racial resentments," which ascribe to blacks as a group certain negative attributes or undeserved advantages. For example, researchers asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites" or "Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve."

Experimenters then inserted questions like these into the American National Election Studies (ANES), extensive biennial surveys funded by the National Science Foundation. The answers revealed a degree of racial resentment that wasn't apparent from more explicit questions about racial bias. In 1986, for instance, 59 percent of respondents agreed that blacks were not trying hard enough (only 27 percent disagreed), while 67 percent thought blacks should work "their way up ... without any special favors." Psychologists David Sears and Donald Kinder, as well as others, found that this racial resentment was the single most important factor--more important than even conservative ideology or political partisanship--in explaining strong opposition to a host of government programs that either directly or indirectly benefited minorities. Of course, that doesn't mean there couldn't be principled conservative opposition to government-guaranteed equal employment or urban aid. But, according to the political psychologists, racial resentment played the largest role in fueling public skepticism.

The answers also revealed which groups within society continued to harbor racial resentment. With the help of Harvard doctoral student Scott Winship, I looked at the levels of racial resentment in ANES data from 1988, 1992, and 2000 (the questions were omitted in 1996). What Winship and I found was that resentment was highest among males rather than females, the middle class rather than the wealthy or poor, those lacking a college degree, those who worked in skilled or semi-skilled blue collar jobs or as laborers, and residents of small towns in the Midwest and South. Does that profile sound familiar? It's more or less a description of the white working-class voters who have spurned Obama and with whom John Kerry and Al Gore had trouble. The only groups that didn't evince racial animosity toward blacks were voters with post-graduate degrees and, of course, African Americans. Hispanics were nearly as prejudiced as whites, and a group labeled "other" that includes Asian Americans was even more so--a partial explanation, perhaps, for why Obama fared so poorly among these groups in California. Clearly, racial resentment persisted--just in a more nuanced form.

In fact, the structure of this modern racism was even more complicated than the ANES data suggested. In a study published in 1995, four psychologists from Indiana University recounted taking a group of subjects who had earlier taken the racism test (the questions had been interspersed among scores of other questions) and giving it to them again. This time, however, a black experimenter conducted some of the tests and a white experimenter the others. The psychologists discovered that, when the interviewer was black, white respondents scored substantially lower on the racism scale than before. This meant that gut-level reactions could be easily influenced by moral reflection and social norms. What psychologists needed was a method of measuring prejudice that elicited immediate emotional reactions rather than the products of deliberation.

Toward that end, they devised tests that measured racial attitudes without subjects knowing what was happening or being able to adjust their responses to social norms. In a study that appeared in 1989, University of Wisconsin psychologist Patricia Devine flashed words on a screen faster than her subjects could recognize them. Some of the words, like "blacks," were associated with African Americans; others were neutral. She then asked subjects whether a person's actions in a deliberately ambiguous story about a customer wanting his money back signified hostility or not. After words associated primarily with African Americans were flashed, the subjects rated the person's actions decidedly more "hostile" than after predominately neutral words were flashed. This suggested to Devine that terms associated with blacks were priming unconscious stereotypes about aggressiveness or hostility.

Another kind of test--known as an implicit association test--used the time it took to complete word association exercises to unmask stereotypes. Psychologists would ask subjects to associate positive and negative adjectives with African American and European American faces by pressing different keys on a computer. At each interval in the experiment, subjects would be told which kind of adjectives to pair with which subject. If a subject regularly took longer to pair positive words with a black face than he did negative words, that indicated unconscious racial bias.

Using data from more than 15,000 self-selected subjects who took the test on a website, psychologists Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji, and Brian Nosek found that the same sorts of respondents who had registered higher on the racial resentment scale were more inclined to associate negative adjectives with an African American face. For instance, subjects who had not graduated from college displayed more prejudice than those who had. Men also were more prejudiced than women.

In addition, according to questions they answered before taking the test, there was a sharp disparity between what subjects said they believed and what the test showed. For instance, only 32 percent of high school graduates said they favored whites over African Americans, but in the test 64 percent did. This disparity suggests that, in answering questions about what they believed, subjects opted for prevailing norms over private sentiments. They did not want to appear racist, even though, at some level, they were.

...that just asks likely voters what ethnicity Mr. Obama is. It wouldn't be surprising if a significant percentage don't know.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2008 11:06 AM

It was certain that the media and left were going to blame Obama's defeat on racism, but I confess I'm a bit surprised that they are laying so much of the groundwork quite this early. If they were confident that he was going to win, they wouldn't be writing these stories.

Posted by: b at May 13, 2008 1:12 PM

while 67 percent thought blacks should work "their way up ... without any special favors."

The research defines this as a new form of racism, and then shockingly goes on to explain that people who oppose "special favors" oppose race-based affirmative action.

Posted by: John Thacker at May 13, 2008 2:49 PM

Are there really social scientists (forgive the oxymoron) who do not accept that our conscious self may not perfectly align with our subconscious self? Siggy weeps.

And Barry is not black. Hope there's at least an Option C on that questionnaire.

Posted by: ghostcat at May 13, 2008 3:33 PM

Actually, BarryO is entirely black, and entirely by choice. The whole point of his move to the South Side of Chicago, becoming a "community organizer" and joining Wright's church and other such was to extinguish any trace of whiteness and any trace of influence his mother's family's might have had on him. The whole "beyond race" schtick is just another lie in a campaign that seems to have no foundation other than what'll play at the moment.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 13, 2008 4:52 PM

That's called "passing" ... if in reverse. It suited his particular social ambitions.

His nature, it should go without saying, is every bit as much white as black.

Posted by: ghostcat at May 13, 2008 6:18 PM

Let us get back to the linked essay, if such may be permitted.

It is striking how this piece turns on the hoary error of confounding race with culture. To put it simply, the writer bases his entire piece on the notion that disapproval of deviant behaviors is the same thing as invidious discrimination against individuals who belong to ethnic groups popularly associated with deviancy.

So having negative attitudes about, say, illegitimacy or violent crime, is evidence of "racism." Why? It must be because everybody knows certain races practice these deviancies to a greater degree than othe races.

Can we see where this kind of confusion winds up? Disapproval of deviance is a perfectly, natural, necessary, and, yes, moral, position. But is one were to accept this charletan's spurious identification of diviance with race, then those who are scrupulous about racial matters are restrained from taking those natural, necessary and moral stands.

So someone who rejects Dukakis for furloughing a murderer from prison is a bad man, because the murderer had been of African descent, as if the fact of being murderer did not matter.

And now associations with Wright's and Farrakhan's racist ideologies may not be judged, because these behaviors are only "code words" for blackness. Silly, isn't it?

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 13, 2008 7:20 PM
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