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Unconscious Bias Amplifies Anti-Obama Rhetoric

• May 10, 2010 • 10:00 AM

New research finds unconscious racial bias makes anti-Obama rhetoric seem more persuasive.

Deeply ingrained but largely unconscious negative attitudes toward African Americans influenced opinions of candidate Barack Obama, and presumably prejudice the way they view his presidency. That’s the conclusion of a newly published study that found subtle racial bias increased the persuasive power of anti-Obama rhetoric — including one patently ridiculous charge.

“Although most contemporary Americans deny racial bias, when race is non-consciously activated, people become more susceptible to negative claims about African Americans,” the research team, led by University of Colorado psychologist Tom Pyszczynski write in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study found this dynamic very much applied to Barack Obama during the late stages of the 2008 campaign.

One month before the election, Pyszczynyski and his colleagues gathered 62 women and 26 men, all of non-African descent. All were asked to engage in a creative writing task: specifically, to compose a brief story about a fictional student. For half, the student had the stereotypically black name Tyrone Walker; for the other half, he had the stereotypically white name of Brad Walker.

The participants then read one of three editorials about Barack Obama. One presented purported evidence that the Illinois senator was the Antichrist. A second, more measured but negative essay called him unpatriotic and friendly to terrorists. The third simply presented his positions on various issues in a neutral tone.

Afterward, participants evaluated Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in various ways (rating such statements as “Obama is too inexperienced” and “McCain is too old”) and reported who they planned to vote for.

The most striking result involved those who read the editorial suggesting Obama is the Antichrist. For members of that group, writing about “Tyrone Walker” decreased support for Obama, but writing about “Brad Walker” increased support for him. (Both scores were measured against those who had read the neutral essay.) The racial priming apparently made the outlandish charge easier to accept, or at least contemplate.

“The fact the Antichrist editorial led to increased preference for Obama in the absence of racial priming shows that the Antichrist claims were not persuasive when racial concerns were not activated,” the researchers write. “These findings thus help explain the impact of extreme and otherwise unpersuasive claims, by demonstrating that activation of racial concerns makes them more persuasive.”

To Pyszczynski and his colleagues, this confirms previous research suggesting “racial attitudes are more influenced by disguised forms of racial animosity that people are unwilling to admit to others or themselves.” They note that, although race was never overtly discussed in the experiment, thinking about a black male “decreased preference for Obama when either mainstream or Antichrist criticisms were lodged against him.”

The research — along with an earlier study linking implicit prejudice with opposition to Obama’s health care proposals — suggests the current debate over whether members in the virtually all-white Tea Party movement are racists largely misses the point. Even among people who don’t consider themselves racists, unconscious bias can clearly play a role in shaping their views of political figures.

This helps explain why definitively disproved claims, such as the charge the president was born outside the U.S., continue to be believed by many Americans. As the researchers conclude, “An unfortunate side effect of Obama’s ethic identity, and that of others leaders and politicians of color, is that it may discourage rational debate.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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