Obama and the Unconscious Racists

Lately I’ve been interested in how racism plays a role in the presidential election.  There are so many factors at work that it seems impossible to isolate race admidst all that is new and different about both Obama’s and McCain’s candidacies.  While I strongly take issue with Tim Wise’s piece on white privilege in the 2008 campaign**, I acknowledge that electing a black man to the highest office in our country will be a significant step for Americans, and I wonder how the psychodynamics are playing out on a national level.  

I don’t know any Democrats who will be voting for McCain.  Hell, I’m not sure I know *anyone* who is voting for him in the state of California.  Seemingly everyone I know (parents, friends, neighbors) is JAZZED about Obama and cannot wait to elect him.  So who exactly are the folks who might vote for Obama if he was lily-white?

Nicholas Kristof has written an interesting op-ed on the matter.  He cites a Stanford study that suggests that Obama would be six points ahead of where he is if he were white.  I’m not certain if this takes the Bradley effect into account or not.  Other studies show that good ol’ fashioned racists (those who would admit a preference for a candidate based soley on race) are not the ones taking away votes from Obama.  Rather it is those white people (and sometimes blacks too) who often earnestly believe in racial equality but unconsciously discriminate that will ultimately hurt Obama.

Kristof writes that, “a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination.”  A Yale experiment in which white participants were asked to choose between black and white job candidates based on identical qualifications showed a strong unconscious bias toward white candidates.


“Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.”

I am curious to know how we identify pure racial bias when non-quantifiable factors such as personality and perceived intelligence come in to play.  Sure, a study is able to present hypothetical candidates with identical qualifications, but how often is it that cut and dry in politics?  I’ve heard some accusations of racism bandied about on the internet when one person expresses a preference for Hillary Clinton or John McCain over Barack Obama.  Which white candidate with identical experience can we compare to Obama to prove that an objection to Obama is an objection to his blackness?

Isolating the effect of racism on the election is an interesting, if depressing exercise in examining our deap-seated biases.  How does one un-learn unconscious discrimination?  Years of therapy?  Making it a policy to always choose against one’s instinct when race is involved? Yes, race is a factor this year. So is age, sex, personality, issues related to the candidates’ children, and a thousand other things that have little to do with how a candidate would govern our country. For better or worse, (worse, mostly) these biases are entrenched in our electorate. The best we can do is to educate ourselves, and attempt to vote based on the policies and values we agree with.

**Wise writes: “White privilege is being able to convince white women who don’t even agree with you on any substantive issue to vote for you and your running mate anyway, because all of a sudden your presence on the ticket has inspired confidence in these same white women, and made them give your party a ‘second look.'” — uh… EXCUSE me?


One response to “Obama and the Unconscious Racists

  1. Pingback: White Folks: Have You Lost Your Damn Mind? « Parenthetical Thoughts

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