The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Should President Obama have a "Black Agenda"

Does the nation need a "black agenda"?

Tavis Smiley’s interview with me about The Hidden Brain is scheduled to air tonight — Tuesday, March 23 — on public television stations nationwide on The Tavis Smiley Show. Please tune in.

The interview took place last week in Los Angeles on the eve of a meeting Tavis Smiley convened over the weekend in Chicago to debate whether President Obama should have a “black agenda” to focus on the problems faced by African-Americans. We talked at length about the chapter of The Hidden Brain that focuses on unconscious racial bias in politics. Watch a short video introduction to the chapter, called Disarming The Bomb, here.

The empirical evidence on whether the White House needs a black agenda seems pretty clear cut: African-Americans are about 400 percent more likely to be imprisoned than whites, about 500 percent more likely to be murdered, begin life with a 1-5 disparity in family wealth, have an infant mortality rate that is about 50 percent higher than the white infant mortality rate, have an unemployment rate that is about double the white unemployment rate and so on.

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The fact Obama happens to be  black is completely beside the point: Regardless of who occupies the White House, it seems pretty obvious that special help needs to be directed toward a group of people who are disproportionately suffering. We would think it absurd if anyone asked whether a President was from the Gulf Coast in order to determine whether the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina entitled the people of New Orleans and the surrounding area for special federal resources and rebuilding efforts.

But as I explain in Disarming the Bomb, race and the controversies swirling around it are never far from our unconscious minds when it comes to politics, even when the issues being discussed ostensibly have nothing to do with race. Obama is severely constrained when it comes to talking openly about race, and his top advisor David Axelrod has helped to get a number of African Americans elected to public office by studiously getting issues of race and/or gender off the table. During the 2008 presidential election, for example, Obama and his team repeatedly suggested America had moved beyond race — even in the face of explicit statements by sizable numbers of voters who said they would never vote for a black man. The media uncritically accepted theories about a “post-racial” America — theories implicitly endorsed by the Obama campaign — because that narrative fit with the fact that Obama got elected.

As I told Tavis Smiley on the show, there is at least one person in the United States who knows for certain that we do not live in a post-racial America — and that person is President Barack Obama. If he did think we lived in a post-racial America, he would have no trouble talking about race because, well, race would no longer matter.  I note in The Hidden Brain that Obama never once mentioned the words “race,” civil rights” or “Martin Luther King” during his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2008 — and the convention happened to be held on the 45th anniversary of the famous 1963 march on Washington that was led by Rev. King. Think about the irony there: It was the first time an African-American man was on the presidential ticket of a major party, and that man had to be mute when it came to the very issue that made his campaign historic.

The fact that a canny politician such as Obama feels the need to be silent about race — or risk losing credibility and support — says less about Obama than it does about the United States. Black leaders such as Tavis Smiley who believe we need to have a “black agenda” in order to help the tens of thousands of African-Americans in dire straits are obviously right. But the sad fact of the matter is that pressing Obama to come out with an explicit policy toward blacks could alienate a sizable number of voters not just on that one issue, but on a raft of issues. This isn’t my opinion — please read the “Disarming the Bomb” chapter in The Hidden Brain for the empirical evidence into the role that unconscious racial bias plays in politics.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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