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Gregory S. Parks Headshot

A New Race(ism?) -- Unconscious Bias in the '08 Campaign

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Since Senator Obama announced his candidacy for president, he has had to walk--as commentators and pundits have noted--a racial tightrope. Race has long been a dynamic on the American political landscape. Conservatives' use of racial code words to galvanize White voters and White voters' resistance to voting for Black candidates are both part of this history. But this is a new day, or is it? Senator Obama likely has a good idea as to how to answer this question, hence his success thus far. For months now, he has indicated that those who oppose his election will use his race to scare voters. Nonetheless, he has raised this issue sparingly and been careful not to direct that charge at any one individual or candidate in particular.

Despite recent accusations that Senator Obama has played the race card, it is doubtful that he has. He seems quite mindful of the racial minefield he must traverse to the Oval Office. For instance, on one hand, research suggests that voting is not based on solely rational processes; intuition and emotion play significant roles in voters' candidate choice. And a candidate's race can be quite emotionally evocative. On the other hand, research suggests that Whites are less receptive to Black Democrats raising race issues than they are to other types of political candidates. Furthermore, the more racially prejudiced the White person, the more irritated and antagonistic they become over being confronted about their perceived anti-Black racial bias. In essence, Senator Obama must point out potentially deep-seeded racial biases among the electorate for those voters who wish to guard against casting their votes tainted by racial bias. At the same time, he has to avoid being perceived as branding them as racists, which would create voter backlash.

The broader challenge for Senator Obama, however, is to make voters aware of the fact that even many well-intentioned individuals harbor unconscious, anti-Black biases. And these biases influence behavior. Maybe this is what he meant when he referred to his grandmother as the "typical White person."

There is a growing body of social and cognitive psychological research, which sheds considerable light on how racial attitudes actually function in this day and age. Most Americans are not expressly racist. And one may even argue that within the 2008 presidential campaign, numerous racialized instances were not even intentional despite the fact that they were consequential to Senator Obama. Nonetheless, what researchers on "implicit bias" have found is that race biases are part of unconscious, emotional processes, wholly apart from the conscious, rational ones. Many people who embrace the egalitarian norm that skin color should not affect their judgment of a political candidate, for instance, also unwittingly harbor negative associations with minorities. The 2008 campaign is replete with examples of how unconscious race bias has likely been at work. Let me give a few examples.

Senator Obama is quite accurate when he says that his opponents have engaged in and will engage in a "politics of fear." Whether his opponents intend to or not (and many probably intend to), many of their character attacks on Senator Obama result in raising unconscious racial biases among voters. Implicit racial bias is not a mere abstraction. It is linked to the deepest recesses of the mind--particularly the amygdale, which is involved in emotional learning, perceiving novel or threatening stimuli, and fear conditioning. Neurological research shows that Whites react to Black faces with amygdala activation, even when shown Black faces only for a millisecond. This activation does not occur in Whites processing White faces. Furthermore, the degree of amygdala activation after exposure to Black faces correlates with measures of unconscious bias. In short, Whites who show strong unconscious anti-Black bias react to Black faces, whether they know it or not, with fear and anxiety.

Moreover, part of what may have exacerbated unconscious voter racial sentiments against Senator Obama during the primaries was the endless loop of sound bites of Reverend Wright's controversial statements on YouTube and the cable news networks. As MSNBC's Chuck Todd recently noted, with regards to the uproar about Senator Obama allegedly playing the race card against John McCain, every day the media talks about race within the campaign is a bad day for Senator Obama. Research suggests that repeated negative images of Blacks on the news serve to exacerbate people's unconscious anti-Black biases.

Senator Obama has also been labeled as unpatriotic. He has been criticized for allegedly not pledging allegiance to the American flag and not wearing an American flag lapel pin. Researchers have found that Whites and Asian Americans more easily associate, at the unconscious level, American symbols with White faces rather than with Black faces. This is so even when the Black faces are those of recognized U.S. Olympic athletes. When Whites and Asians are shown images of the American flag for only milliseconds, their attitudes toward Blacks become more negative. When similarly shown images of the American flag, their attitudes toward Democrats are not altered. Their attitude toward Blacks generally, and Senator Obama specifically, become more negative, however. Additionally, people more easily associate, at the unconscious level, Senator Clinton with the category "American" than Senator Obama; even Tony Blair is unconsciously associated with "American" more so than Senator Obama.

In addition to conflating Senator Obama's race with a lack of authentic Americanness, critics have also labeled him as foreign; Pat Buchanan's constant refrain is that Senator Obama is "exotic." Detractors have attempted to allude to his middle name, "Hussein," as another indicator that he is inauthentically American. And research shows, for example, people tend to find it easier to associate American names with pleasant words and foreign names with unpleasant words.

Senator Obama has also received a considerable amount of criticism after he referenced some working-class voters' frustration with the economy as being, among other things, "bitter." Senator Clinton, in turn, charged Senator Obama with being elitist, which got lots of traction in the press and among some White voters. What was striking about such a critique is that Senator Obama's life-story, vis-à-vis that of both Senators Clinton and McCain, is just the opposite. More recently, Senator McCain and his surrogates have attempted to paint Senator Obama as presumptuous and arrogant for doing the same, if not less egregious, things as the McCain campaign. But the subtext to all of this, as David Gergen aptly described it on ABC's This Week, is that Senator Obama is being portrayed as "uppity" (a Black person who believes he is better than a Black person should so think). "Uppity" amounts to a racial slur, and research suggests that unconscious, anti-Black bias is correlated with the use of verbal slurs towards Blacks.

Poll data and express comments by voters also highlight how the race in the 2008 campaign may best be interpreted through the lens of unconscious bias. For example, approximately 70-90% of Whites harbor an unconscious, anti-Black/pro-White bias. As such, it is no surprise that Senator Obama had difficulty with White voters in primary, as opposed to caucus, states in his bid for the Democratic nomination. Group deliberation, like caucuses, provides a context where individuals are more likely to engage in self-checking with regards to racial bias due to the desire not to be perceived as racially biased by others. Primaries, where voters cast their ballot in private, do not provide the same context. Moreover, even Asian and Latino Americans harbor unconscious anti-Black biases. As such, Senator Obama's difficulty in wooing more Latino(a) and Asian American voters than Senator Clinton is also understandable in light of unconscious bias research.

Additionally, one might suspect that even after an acrimonious primary season such as the one experienced by the Democrats, in the end Democrats would unify behind their party's candidate. But during their campaign, some supporters of Senator Clinton indicated that they would not vote for Senator Obama if he were the Democratic nominee. Research shows that Democrats who hold the most favorable unconscious views towards a racial minority are several times more likely to prefer a minority candidate compared with Democrats who hold the least positive unconscious views of that racial minority group. Unconscious bias is less of a determining factor when the minority is a Democrat. In essence, even when Democrats harbor unconscious anti-minority biases, they tend to overcome these biases when choosing between a racial minority Democrat and a White non-Democrat. However, the minority used in this study was Latino, and arguably unconscious biases against Blacks are more virulent than those against Latinos.

Polling data suggests that there was a profile, in addition to race and sex, of those who supported Senator Clinton over Senator Obama. Senator Clinton's supporters, tended to be older and less educated than Senator Obama's supporters. And research suggests that age and education are correlated with political orientation, with those who are older and less educated being more politically conservative. People who are more politically conservative also tend to harbor stronger unconscious anti-Black biases than those who are liberal. In fact, in a Newsweek poll published several months ago, participants were asked to answer questions on a variety of race-related topics (e.g., racial preferences, interracial marriage, attitudes toward social welfare and general attitudes toward African-Americans). Participants were categorized according to their responses on a "Racial Resentment Index." Among White Democrats who scored low on the Index, Senator Obama beat Senator McCain in a hypothetical match-up 78% to 17%. That was almost identical to Senator Clinton's margin in the category, 79% to 13%. Among White Democrats with high scores on the Index, Senator Obama led Senator McCain by only 18 points (51 to 33) while Senator Clinton maintained a much larger 59-point lead (78 to 18). Those who scored high on the Index, 61%, had less than a four-year college education, and many are older (44% were over the age of 60 compared to just 18% under the age of 40).

Some commentators and critics have argued that the support of some Whites for Senator Obama and the overwhelming number of Blacks who voted for him rise to the level of reverse discrimination. Black support of Senator Obama ranged anywhere from 66% to 93%. And robust White support was seen during the primaries in states such as Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and Vermont. Many of these voters were not hesitant to indicate that the fact that Senator Obama is Black was at least part of the reason why they voted for him. Such voting patterns are a good thing, in light of how unconscious biases operate. Between 50-65% of Blacks exhibit unconscious bias in favor of Whites. Many Blacks' and Whites who voted for Senator Obama tended to vote against their unconscious anti-Black bias. Therefore, their voting was strikingly different from White voters who supported Senator Clinton or support Senator McCain because they are White candidates. Many of these Whites are voting with the grain of either their conscious or unconscious anti-Black biases. Pro-Blackness, therefore, is not analogous to pro-Whiteness.

In the end, critics of such an approach to analyzing race within the 2008 campaign will likely raise two points. The first is, "How do you account for Obama's success among White voters?" The second is, "So anybody who doesn't vote for or criticizes Obama is a racist?" With regards to the former, the distinction between primaries and caucuses, the respective checks and lack of checks they place on unconscious bias, explains a lot. But even more, there is a growing body of psychological research suggesting that positive images of Blacks, among other factors, can reduce unconscious, anti-Black biases. And arguably, Senator Obama's whole persona is one that militates against such unconscious biases--even in the face of mudslinging from his opponents. With regards to the latter, racism (which is largely express and overt) should not necessarily be conflated with unconscious biases (which are implicit and outside of conscious awareness). Furthermore, individuals may vote for a candidate based on any number of factors, some of which may legitimately focus on distinctions among candidates on policies and experience. However, voters should not underestimate the influence of their unconscious on their voting behavior. Most voters will remain unaware that unconscious biases may be helping to dictate which candidate they support. Others, like an individual who is HIV positive and protests that they are free of the virus because they "feel healthy," will argue that they are free from racial bias because they don't perceive that they harbor such biases. But like HIV, unconscious racial biases lie outside of full awareness. The only way to actually know if one is (in)affected is to get tested.

For a deeper review of the role of unconscious race and gender bias in the 2008 election, please see an early draft of a manuscript I coauthored with Cornell Law Professor, Jeffrey Rachlinski.

Gregory S. Parks holds a J.D. and a Ph.D. in psychology. He works in Washington, D.C. and is the co-editor of Critical Race Realism: Intersections of Psychology, Race, and Law (The New Press, 2008). Dr. Parks is currently coauthoring one law review article (with Cornell Law Professor, Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, J.D., Ph.D.) on unconscious race and gender bias in the 2008 election (focused on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) and another (with Villanova Business School Professor, Quinetta M. Roberson, Ph.D.) on the intersection of unconscious race and gender bias in the 2008 election (focused on Michelle Obama). To contact Dr. Parks, please email him here.