Obama and the complexities of racism

I just read an interesting article here about the (at first) surprising fact that some people with explicitly negative beliefs about African Americans are planning to vote for Obama. On reflection, or course, it’s not surprising at all. Even openly bigoted people of the most extreme sort– those who think black people are inferior to white people, and will say so out loud– will generally allow that there are exceptions. This is why the classic black best friend really doesn’t (on its own) show that someone isn’t a racist. So *of course* one may hold negative beliefs about African Americans and still support Obama. But it’s well worth remembering– especially given all the articles I’ve seen assuming that whole regions are not worth fighting for because there’s so much racism. (I’m pleased to see, though, that Obama’s people really don’t seem to have accepted these “give up on x arguments” at all.)

I also began thinking, though, about the effect that it has on people when they do make that black friend. Their racist beliefs may well get shaken a bit (of course they also may not). And it got me wondering about the effect that Obama may be having on people’s beliefs, and also their unconscious biases. After all, one of the fascinating things about unconscious bias is the sort of thing that can reduce it:

There is growing evidence that implicit attitudes can be changed through exposure to counter-stereotypes. When the race test is administered by a black man, test takers’ implicit bias toward blacks is reduced, says Irene Blair, a University of Colorado psychologist who recently conducted a review of studies that looked at how attitudes could be changed. Volunteers who mentally visualized a strong woman for a few seconds — some thought of athletes, some thought of professionals, some thought of the strength it takes to be a homemaker — had lower bias scores on gender tests. Having people think of black exemplars such as Bill Cosby or Michael Jordan lowered race bias scores. One experiment found that stereotypes about women became weaker after test takers watched a Chinese woman use chopsticks and became stronger after they watched the woman put on makeup. Interventions as brief as a few seconds had effects that lasted at least as long as 24 hours.

I wonder what the effect might be of being regularly exposed to images of a black Presidential candidate, or even a black President.

7 thoughts on “Obama and the complexities of racism

  1. I hope an Obama presidency will have a salutary impact on the relevant unconscious biases, but I worry that it might make it even more difficult than it already is for folks — especially, of course, but not exclusively, white folks — to appreciate the structural racism at work in our society. Those prone to ignore or deny the existence of the latter might feel themselves confirmed in their attitude by the fact of a black man having become president.

  2. I was just wondering yesterday the extent to which the many fine African American actors of recent years – men of stature like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and James Earl Jones, who radiate dignity and a calm sense of presence in every role – have paved the way for us to elect Obama. For those of us who live in very white states or communities, these are our predominant mental images of the modern African American male in careers relying on speaking skills.

  3. @ Iga — I don’t know whether it’s true that the three men you mentioned are really THE predominant examples that come to mind in your state/community, but let’s not forget (among many other men) Colin Powell!!
    (Also, though this may be heresy, I do think that if Obama is elected, GW Bush will deserve some of the credit. I don’t mean in the usual way having to do with his being widely disliked, his administration’s policies being widely unpopular, and so on. I mean specifically for appointing Powell and Rice as Secretaries of State. Regardless of their actions while in office, I don’t think that anyone can deny that many Americans respect and/or admire them. And both have helped, I think, provide more-or-less positive images of black Americans at the highest levels of government.)

    That said, I want to echo a point that I think even MLK made, which is that people in stereotyped groups should have the freedom to be “average”, even if that means conforming to some of the stereotypes while not conforming to others.

  4. Those prone to ignore or deny the existence of the latter might feel themselves confirmed in their attitude by the fact of a black man having become president.

    Well, to some extent they’re right. An Obama presidency would be/indicate pretty substantive forward movement, and I don’t see any reason to think it would strengthen the ignorant position disproportionately.

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