How a Race About Race Could Be Less About Race

Inevitably, some voters will cast votes against Barack Obama because he is black. But research suggests he has options for reducing prejudiced voting in November.
Publish date:
Social count:
Inevitably, some voters will cast votes against Barack Obama because he is black. But research suggests he has options for reducing prejudiced voting in November.

This presidential election is pretty much all about race.

Americans tend to squirm when they read sentences like the preceding one. The topic of race makes them nervous, unsure of themselves. After all, if someone admits that race influences his or her preference for a candidate, doesn't that make him or her a racist?

Exactly how racial prejudice will figure in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain can't be known until November, but one fact is inescapable: It will. Though almost no Americans admit to being racist in surveys, there is abundant evidence that everyone is prone to some degree of biased thinking. In fact, studies have already shown that race was a factor in this year's Democratic primary election.

Bias, social scientists say, is partly the result of an innate human tendency to categorize and make distinctions and partly a legacy of early childhood socialization. Some studies show children as young as 3 or 4 exhibit signs of prejudice.

Racism was once widely sanctioned in America, but that changed during and after the civil rights movement. "In the U.S. today, it's psychologically difficult for people to view themselves as racially biased," says Scott Plous, a psychology professor at Wesleyan University. "As the norms have changed, the psychology of prejudice has changed."

But racial prejudice hasn't disappeared; it's just gone underground. When responding to interviewers, potential voters don't want to be perceived as racists (and indeed may not consciously think of themselves in those terms); yet racial judgments and stereotypes color their preferences. In expressing those preferences, they often resort to "attributional ambiguity," explaining their dislike for a candidate in terms of nonracial characteristics, Plous says. One example might be objecting to Obama as "elitist" because he was a law professor.

"To the extent you have ambiguity, where someone can plausibly deny racial differences on nonracial grounds, you have very fertile conditions where racism can take root," Plous says.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Recognizing that people might not tell strangers what they are really thinking, in the early 1990s social psychologist Tony Greenwald devised an ingenious method for ferreting out their real beliefs: the Implicit Association Test. The test asks subjects to rapidly match "good" words ("joy," "wonderful" and "happy," for example) and "bad" words ("agony," "evil" and "failure") with random black or white faces. "It picks up associations that people have — and often that they don't (explicitly) endorse," says Greenwald, a professor at the University of Washington. "What you consciously espouse is based on your immediate social network, your education ... but, nonetheless, you have associations in your head that you can't avoid."

The test shows whites tend to prefer white faces — an example of what psychologists call in-group preference — but so do Asian Americans and half of blacks, testimony to the strong association of whiteness with power and privilege in our culture. (You can take the 2008 Presidential Candidates IAT online at Harvard's Project Implicit Web site.)

For more this topic, see our story on unintended racism in schools on

The IAT has also shown, for example, that U.S. elementary school students strongly associate males with math, Greenwald says. "Just picking up this math-gender stereotype lays the groundwork for girls doing less well in math," he says. Researchers have also found that the stronger the math-gender stereotype in a given country, the greater the gender-based difference in performance on math achievement tests.

How strongly do implicit attitudes affect voting in the presidential race? Greenwald says he noticed that much of the Democratic primary race polling was far off the mark, over-reporting or under-reporting support for Obama. When Greenwald and political scientist Bethany Albertson looked at data from 18 states with extensive pre-primary polling and open primaries, they found the percentage of a state's population that was black predicted the degree of polling error. "The larger the black population, the more the polls under-predicted Obama," Greenwald says. "The smaller the black population, the more (a poll) under-predicted Clinton."

To Greenwald, this was evidence of what is sometimes called the Bradley Effect, referring to former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's unexpected loss during his bid for California governor in 1982. In that election, it appeared many white voters who didn't want to be perceived as racist told pollsters they supported Bradley, an African American, but in the privacy of the voting booth chose his opponent.

In some of this year's Democratic primaries, it seems that some black voters did not disclose to pollsters their support for Obama for similar reasons, creating what Greenwald calls a "reverse Bradley Effect." In one race, 80 percent of black voters told pollsters they supported Obama, but exit polls showed more than 90 percent actually voted for him. Greenwald believes the Bradley Effect has implications for the general election, given that many states have small African-American populations. "I think there are going to be more states in which the polls under-predict McCain," he says.

One of the pioneers in the field of bias research was Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport. In his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, Allport noted that humans naturally think with the aid of categories, a process that entails making generalizations from experience. And that experience is often quite limited; people tend not to associate very much with members of other racial and ethnic groups.

"He organized the field, and it's lasted for 50 years," says Thomas Pettigrew, a research professor of social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was one of Allport's graduate assistants. "The old idea was that prejudiced people were sick, somehow — different from us. He tore into that. He really ripped that up forever by pointing out that most of the basis for prejudice came from regular human traits."

While Allport "stressed the cognitive side" — stereotypes and beliefs that arise from erroneous categorization — Pettigrew stresses the emotional. "Emotions predict behavior much better than stereotypes," he says.

In Pettigrew's view, stereotypes are more the product of prejudice than the cause. They may arise as a rationalization for emotion and can be reinforced by persistent and pervasive media images, he says.

In the presidential campaign, there's a double effect going on, Pettigrew says. "There is racism, to be sure. Some of it surprises me with how blatant it is," he says. But some white people — particularly the young — support Obama because of race. It is, Pettigrew says, racism in reverse.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

One way to combat prejudice and weaken the effects of stereotyping is to promote contact among people of different racial, ethnic, cultural or other groups, Pettigrew says. He and colleague Linda Tropp looked at 515 studies on prejudice and contact with people of different groups. Ninety-five percent of them showed that increased contact reduced prejudice, he says. With more intergroup contact, Pettigrew says, "You start being less provincial. It's not that you turn against your in-group, but the out-group becomes less threatening."

Allport posited four conditions that made intergroup contact more effective, Pettigrew says. The first was that members of both groups share equal status. Second, the interaction should be cooperative, not competitive. The third was that the cooperation be toward a common goal, stressing interdependence. The fourth — and, in Pettigrew's research, the most important — was that there be an authority sanctioning the contact. And intergroup contact is more effective when it is voluntary and sustained, Pettigrew says. "Is there potential to become friends?" he asks. "Friendship is powerful ... that really changes things."

The consciousness of racial differences is hard-wired into our brains, says Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University. "Really young infants notice race, and they actively prefer similar races," she says. "It's a fundamental kind of human reaction to prefer people who are similar to you."

But she echoes Allport's theory of intergroup contact, saying that people who grow up in a diverse environment tend to become more tolerant. "If you grow up in an urban setting where you see a lot of different kinds of people, you're habituated to these different people," she says.

In her research, Fiske has tied prejudice to the activation of primitive yet powerful emotions — pity, pride, disgust and envy —that are aroused when people regard members of an "out-group" in a prejudicial way. These feelings, in turn, depend on how others are assessed in terms of warmth and in competence. For example, one might rate the homeless low both in warmth and competence, leading to feelings of disgust. "What happens when you have an ethnic or racial or some other cultural divide is that everything gets attributed to it," Fiske says. "People focus on difference a lot."

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Can Obama's campaign counter the effects of racial stereotyping?

Fiske thinks so. Obama's job is to get people to know him as an individual. "With exposure and experience, you can get to the point where you say, ‘I know he's black, but I know a lot of other things about him,'" she says. She also notes that her warmth-versus-competence matrix works in Obama's favor. "Social class trumps race," she says. "People have really different stereotypes of poor blacks and black professionals." Thanks to their outsized accomplishments, she notes, people like Tiger Woods, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice "became post-black."

Wesleyan's Scott Plous says Obama has done a masterful job of addressing race thus far in the campaign, pointing to his March 18 "A More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia as he moved to quell the controversy surrounding remarks made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "I think the speech Barack Obama gave was extraordinary," Plous says. "He didn't dance around the issue. He tried to make multiple perspectives understandable."

Candidates and their surrogates can do much to change the way a candidate is perceived by framing him in ways that stress his similarity to voters, Plous says. "People are fluid and flexible thinkers," he says, "so when you do prime these common categories, they respond."

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.