Prejudice and Obama's Opposition

Are Obama's opponents prejudiced?

Posted Dec 08, 2009

Former President Jimmy Carter unleashed a tidal wave of protest when he suggested that "an overwhelming portion" of opposition to President Barack Obama reflects the racism of his critics. Republican bigwigs like House Minority Leader John Boehner and RNC Chairman Michael Steele pounced, denouncing Carter for impugning the "purely ideological" motives of the opposition. And now, a new ad produced by a right-wing filmmaker shames supporters of health care reform for accusing anyone who is against reform of being a racist. Clearly, things are getting nasty.

Unfortunately, the rhetorical excesses of political point-counterpoint obscure a perfectly legitimate—and testable—psychological question: Do individuals' racial attitudes shape their perceptions of Barack Obama and his policies? Is the influence of race overwhelming, as Carter claims—or, virtually nonexistent, as Boehner and Steele, as well as some prominent Democrats, would have us believe? As is almost always the case in psychology, the answer appears to lie somewhere in the middle.

A pair of studies suggest that individuals' attitudes about African Americans do, in fact, influence their reactions to Obama and his policies. B. Keith Payne and his colleagues, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, tackle the issue of whether prejudice influenced voting patterns in the 2008 presidential election. Using a measure of "implicit" attitudes—attitudes that the individual might not be aware of or consciously endorse—the researchers found that individuals high in anti-Black feelings were significantly less likely to report voting for Obama than those low in bias. Thanks to the researchers' use of a nationally representative sample and their attention to subtle undercurrents of prejudice, it is unlikely that their results reflect only the voting behavior of the political fringe. Instead, prejudice may have substantially reduced President Obama's margin of victory in 2008.

Just because racial attitudes affected voting behavior in 2008 doesn't necessarily mean that people's ongoing reactions to Obama and his policies are shaped by racial attitudes. My research with Brian Lowery and Rebecca Schaumberg of Stanford University addresses this question. Our work, also published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, reports a longitudinal study in which we measured individuals' attitudes at multiple points in time. Before the 2008 election, we administered a measure of implicit prejudice to about 300 people. Later, we asked these individuals' for their views on Obama's health care reform plan. We found that participants high in anti-Black bias tended to oppose Obama's plan and to embrace a host of specific worries about the policy—such as fears that it would promote euthanasia and abortion, increase the deficit, and lead to rationing of services.

In an experimental study, we saw what happened when a description of health care reform was attributed to Obama or to former president Bill Clinton. When the plan was said to have been Clinton's idea, prejudice was uncorrelated with support—in fact, around two-thirds of both low- and high-bias participants supported reform. However, when the plan was said to be Obama's brainchild, high-bias participants' support fell to 40%, while two out of three low-bias participants' still supported the plan. We interpret these findings to suggest that reactions to Obama's "message" are colored by race-based attitudes toward the "messenger" himself.

Let's be clear about what these results do and do not show. The data support the notion that racial prejudice is one factor shaping people's views about Obama and his policies. But the data do not show that prejudice is the only reason—or even the most important reason—why people oppose Obama. In fact, the studies I've described are completely consistent with a great many people opposing the President simply because of the political and ideological character of his policies. (The ad linked above willfully ignores the difference between saying that race is one factor and claiming it's the only factor. But that's what makes it effective propaganda.) Social psychological research affirms the need to recognize the continuing role of race in our politics. However, we should be careful not to automatically assume the worst about those with whom we disagree.