THE BLOG

Implicit (Unconscious) Race Bias and the 2008 Presidential Election: Does Obama Stand a Chance?, Part II

Feb 05, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

Read Part I here.

Let me make a few points about how the research I discussed in my first blog entry relates to Obama and his run for the presidency:

First, there seems to be a general pervasiveness to Whites' implicit anti-Black/pro-White bias. Though their general bias is most pronounced among conservatives, conservativism can and should be measured on a continuum. Thus, not surprisingly, there are fairly conservative Democrats who likely harbor this implicit anti-Black bias. Furthermore, it should be no surprise that those Whites who are likely to be the most conservative (e.g., older and less educated) have been voting for Clinton whereas those who are likely more liberal (e.g., younger and more educated) have been voting for Obama.

Second, the research on amygdala activation (e.g., elicitation of fear responses in Whites when images of Blacks are subliminally flashed) and implicit racial attitudes connects, interestingly, with political science research on racial threat. Here, some Whites' implicit negative reaction to Obama may be out of a fear of having a Black president and nay perceived baggage that may bring with it.

Third, people who support Clinton seem to make a big deal about her experience. I don't see it. Are they counting the years as First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the U.S., and a handful of years in the Senate? Objectively, she and Obama have roughly the same resumes at the federal level. I think the study from my prior blog entry on racial disparities in how employers review similar resumes, and Jerry Kang's insights about racial schemas, helps explain why Whites give Clinton more credit regarding experience than they do Obama

Fourth, in light of this research, generally, how do I make sense of the caucuses and primaries? Political science research and accounts of the Bradley, Dinkins, and Wilder elections give some hint as to what took place in Iowa in and New Hampshire. I sense that in Iowa, given that caucuses are conducted such that others are aware of your vote, Whites were less apt to be guided by implicit bias and vote for the White candidates, because they had to be publicly accountable for their votes. In the New Hampshire primary, no public accountability took place and thus no checking of implicit attitudes at the door. Additionally, part of what might explain New Hampshire is the noted study on exposure to liked (Black) and disliked (White) persons. Obama and Clinton were near polar opposites on the likeability spectrum, which may have abated some Whites implicit racial attitudes vis-à-vis he and Clinton. However, her noting during the New Hampshire debate that she was hurt by not being "liked" by voters and then tearing-up at the café, she served to humanize herself. In doing so, she may have unwittingly washed out the effect of this Black (liked)/White (disliked) contrast and its diminishing effect on Whites' implicit racial bias.

Lastly, what has likely gotten Obama this far among Whites is their efforts to check their implicit biases at the door when caucusing or voting during primaries. If South Carolina is any indication, however, he still has a long way to go. It seems that he may be able too broaden his appeal among White voters, but he is short on time. If Whites with egalitarian beliefs wanted to truly consider Obama's candidacy free of implicit racial bias, many could, but Obama's difficulty is that neither he nor his campaign can directly raise the issue of White "prejudice" dampening his votes among them. It would be nice if Whites knew their implicit racial biases (by taking the IAT) and then sought to square those biases with their professed, non-racist attitudes. In addition to various forms of external debiasing, I think this is the only way Obama truly has a shot at the presidency.

[NOTE: People do harbor implicit gender bias, but it does not seem to be as pronounced as implicit race bias. Though people tend to have implicit stereotypes about careers and gender, they also have a more favorable implicit attitude--generally--about women compared to men.]