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On Race, 'Obama Effect' Cuts Two Ways

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Even before he was elected president, Barack Obama began influencing the way Americans think about race. But the question of whether his rise to power has led to a decrease in racial prejudice remains open in the wake of two provocative new studies.

The optimistic findings come from a research team led by psychologist E. Ashby Plant of Florida State University. In a yet-to-be-published paper, the scholars report an “unprecedented drop in implicit bias” among non-black college students in Wisconsin and Florida.

Previous research has found a strong underlying anti-black bias among non-black Americans who take the Implicit Association Test. That’s a computer task in which black and white faces are flashed onto a screen along with positive or negative words. Participants rapidly sort out which concepts they associate with which faces.

But when the test was administered to a group of 229 students at a Wisconsin university last fall – after the presidential nominating conventions, but before the election – the results were startlingly different. The researchers detected no anti-black bias on the part of the participants, 80 percent of whom were white.

In a related survey, the students were asked to list five things they associate with black people. Fifty percent mentioned either Obama or some other positive role model.

To Plant and colleagues, this suggests Obama’s ascent has altered the pattern of associations whites have traditionally held regarding blacks, reducing implicit prejudice. They argue this could mean the new president has produced “a fundamental change” in how Americans think about race.

However, the researchers caution that it’s highly uncertain whether these results will hold up in the long term. They suspect that depends upon whether his presidency is judged to be a success.

A separate study just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology yields more ambiguous results. A team of researchers led by Stanford University psychologist Daniel Effron found that endorsing Obama for president makes people more likely to favor whites over blacks in subsequent competitions.

Previous research found that choosing a qualified African American for a job increased the likelihood that people would describe a subsequent opening as being better suited to white applicants. Effron and colleagues were interested to see whether that applied to the highest job in government.

So in February 2008, they conducted a study of 99 college undergraduates of various racial backgrounds, and asked them if they preferred John McCain or Barack Obama for president. They also read a scenario about a police force characterized by racial tension, and were asked whether a black or white applicant would be better suited for a job in such a department.

Those who endorsed Obama were significantly more likely to say a white person would be a better fit for the job.

To make sure Obama’s race played a role in their thinking (at least on an unconscious level), the researchers asked a subsequent group of students to choose between the candidates in the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry. Support for Kerry did not lead to subsequent preference for a white candidate for the police job.

The researchers conclude that endorsing Obama helps people establish their “moral credentials” as non-prejudiced people, and thus makes them more comfortable expressing opinions that could be regarded by some as racist.

But were they really exposing underlying racist tendencies in arguing that a white man would be better suited for the police job? Not necessarily; Effron and colleagues note that the decision could reflect concern that a black man who took the job would be in an impossibly difficult situation.

“Our findings raise the possibility that the opportunity to vote for an African American for president could have reduced some voters’ concerns about appearing prejudiced, thereby ironically increasing the likelihood that they would favor whites in subsequent decisions,” the researchers conclude.

“At the same time, to the extent that fears of appearing prejudiced can prevent the open discussion of race-related topics, expressing support for Obama might also make people more comfortable acknowledging and addressing issues surrounding race, as Obama himself has urged Americans to do.”