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Obama Is President So Racism Is Over. Right?

How voting for Obama can increase racism

Obama's presidency has immediately had a profound effect on many African Americans in America. Just a few personal stories, taken from the clever website, will prove my point. One African American talks about his frustration buying greeting cards prior to the election. Pre-Obama, he went out to buy a Mother's Day card for his Mother, only to be greeted by a whole bunch of cards with white ladies in aprons on them. He notes his experience at the same gift shop post-Obama and the availability of a variety of new greeting card options, with all different kinds of races on them. He even noticed an entire row devoted to social issues.

Another African American, Edward, talks about how happy he is being a police officer now that racism has ended. Prior to the election, being a policeman was hard for Edward. He had so much to remember. Not only things like the law and code of conduct, but also he had to remember rules with so much nuance such as black people are drug addicts, brown-skinned people hanging out on corners are up to no good, and people with an accent of any kind are terrorists. Now, thanks to Obama's election, Edward's job is easier. He gets to just have one rule instead of many: treat everyone as a human being deserving respect. Thank you Obama. Racism is over!

If only. Two recent papers, hot off the press in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology present some alarming data. Daniel A. Effron, a graduate student at Stanford University and his collaborators conducted three studies to test whether endorsing Obama would cause people to favor Whites at the expense of Blacks. They predicted that this would indeed be the case, based on the idea of "moral credentials" put forward by Benoit Monin and Dale Miller. Monin and Miller found that people were more willing to express potentially prejudiced attitudes when their past behavior had given them a bit of credentials as a nonpredjudiced person. Effron and his collaborators applied this idea to the Obama election and found that after Obama supporters expressed support for Obama in the experiment, they were more willing to say that a police job at a force characterized by racial tension was better suited for Whites than for Blacks. They ran the study again and not only found the same effect again, but they also found that the effect wasn't due to alternative explanations, such as the fact that Obama is a democrat and perhaps the effect was driven by choosing a Democrat, or that maybe just the sight of Obama activated the schema "Black" that influenced the hiring decision. No, it seems their results are really due to the act of choosing a Black man, and thus increasing the participant's moral credentials by doing so. In a third study, the researchers even found that Obama supporters who were scored higher on a measure of racism were particularly likely to increase the proportion of money they allocated to a White organization at the expense of a Black organization. According to the researchers, these studies suggest that endorsing Obama doesn't change your attitudes, but instead may give people just the moral credentials needed to increase their comfort expressing preferences that favor Whites at the expense of Blacks.

In another alarming study, Cheryl R. Kaiser at the University of Washington and her colleagues tracked people's perceptions of the need for affirmative action and other policies that address racial injustice both prior to and after the election. They found that Obama's election was associated with (a) greater perceptions that anyone, regardless of life circumstances, can achieve success in the U.S. through hard work, (b) decreased perception that the U.S. has a long way to go to achieve racial equality, (c) less support for policies that address racial inequality such as affirmative action, desegregation programs that promote diversity in public schools, business efforts to promote diversity in the workplace, and equal access to healthcare for minorities.

These results are troublesome. Look. I'm not saying we need to tone down our optimism. But I do think we need to increase our realism. The truth is that there are pervasive racial disparities in nearly all aspects of American society. Kaiser and colleagues list only a few examples. Black men over 18 years of age are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than White men of the same age range. Black families are nearly three times more likely to live below the poverty line as white families. Compared to Whites, Blacks are 30% more likely to die from heart disease as well as cancer. I totally agree with Kaiser and colleagues when they say, "If Americans assume that racism is less of a problem now that they have elected a Black president, their misperception could make it difficult to garner resources and support for efforts that are so desperately needed to address these racial disparities."

Sure, Obama's election was huge. And trust me, I look forward to the increased opportunities for individual expression and the broader appreciation for ethnic diversity this presidency is sure to generate (see Are conservatives less creative than liberals?). But let's make sure we don't think we've completely fulfilled our moral credentials just because we voted for Obama and told all our friends how fabulous he is. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to reduce racial inequalities in America. Let's not get complacent, OK?

© 2009 by Scott Barry Kaufman