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Testing Obama's effect on racial attitudes

One study finds a pro-black bias among white college students. Another suggests Obama's election closed an achievement gap. Others say nothing has changed. The Obama Studies field is just starting.

August 19, 2009|Richard Fausset

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — After decades of exposure to all of those stereotypes -- the Aunt Jemimas and the gangsta rappers, the Willie Hortons and TV drug dealers -- this just wasn't supposed to be happening.

The test results baffled Florida State University psychologist Ashby Plant. She checked and rechecked the figures. Something must be wrong, she told herself.

Plant and her colleagues had just administered a racial Implicit Association Test to 74 white college students. A common tool in psychology lab work, the IAT purports to measure the kinds of biases people may not admit or even know they harbor. It is one of the more troubling, and fascinating, realities in Plant's line of work that when the test is administered to whites, about 75% typically show some degree of anti-black bias.

But in this case, her subjects were displaying almost no bias against African Americans. In fact, about 45% appeared to be favoring blacks over whites.

"It made us stop dead in our tracks," she said. "I mean, this was unheard of."

It was spring 2008 -- a moment of mounting intensity in America's presidential race. It was also the moment when Plant, 40, found herself delving into a new sub-specialty with few precedents in the social sciences.

Call it Obama Studies.

It is a line of inquiry pursued by a small group of researchers, most of them experts in the nature of bias and prejudice. Their goal is to bring some scientific rigor to vexing questions that continue to ricochet around American dining rooms, the kind that were only amplified this summer with the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black: How are racial attitudes changing, if at all, in the age of the first black president?

Plant and her colleagues began speculating that their surprising numbers had something to do with the candidate Barack Obama. After all, his image was everywhere. Perhaps, they would later write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the students had been profoundly affected by repeated exposure to a man "whose qualities -- well-educated, motivated, articulate -- contradict the negative stereotypes of African Americans."

So they began designing an experiment to test their hypothesis.

Serious scientific inquiry into the nature of prejudice has largely been the domain of social psychologists, who study the way people interact with, think about and influence one another.

In the United States, the discipline began gathering steam after World War II, as German emigres sought to better understand the allure of Nazism. The latter half of the 20th century -- with its litany of cruelties, ethnic clashes and minority rights movements -- ensured that the burgeoning field would be strongly influenced by the course of history.

"We studied aggression after the riots of the 1960s, and we studied gender prejudice as the feminist movement was catching on in the 1970s," said David G. Myers, a social psychologist at Hope College in Michigan.

It is a discipline that tends to focus on big-picture questions (e.g., "What are the motivational sources of prejudice?") and hyper-specific biological observations (e.g., the role of certain brain regions in race-based fear responses). But with Obama's victory -- in a country where, 50 years ago, nearly half of white voters wouldn't consider voting for a black candidate -- a number of researchers now have turned their attention to the influence of one man.

Thus far, some of the most widely discussed test results have been contradictory. If there has been an "Obama effect" on racial consciousness, it's not clear yet what it is.

Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, conducted studies that suggested exposure to Obama's convention speech and election helped black students close an achievement gap with whites on a verbal aptitude test.

But in another study, a New York University researcher, Joshua Aronson, found that thinking about Obama had no discernible effect on black students' test scores.

At Stanford University, researchers led by graduate student Daniel Effron found what might be called a reverse Obama effect. In their studies, white Obama supporters showed favoritism for whites over blacks in certain hypothetical situations -- perhaps because by supporting Obama, they felt bestowed with non-racist "moral credentials" that made them more comfortable siding with fellow whites.

Plant is an animated and friendly woman with inquisitive brown eyes set in an open, thoughtful face. It is also a white face, and some of her memories growing up in Baltimore involve unpleasant encounters with the realities of race -- like the awkwardness of watching a stereotype-riddled TV show with her black best friend.

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