I see a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. . . . . My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as “belonging” in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely. My life was reflected back to me frequently enough so that I felt, with regard to my race, if not to my sex, like one of the real people.
Here’s a simple question with all sorts of profound implications, especially for the upcoming election of either John McCain or Barack Obama: “What does it mean to be a ‘real’ American?”
According to the recently released results of a massive, long-term study of the psychological underpinnings of racial attitudes, it appears that Toni Morrison’s stark observation in 1992 about the word “American” is still true. In Playing in the Dark, her study of how race works in the minds of white American authors, Morrison wrote, ”Deep within the word ‘American’ is its association with race. . . . American means white .”
As the Washington Post reported on Monday, psychologists at San Diego State and the University of Chicago have discovered, via the standard Implications Aptitude Test, that the “white equals American” bias is incredibly pervasive across America’s racial groups, and that it “could well be playing a powerful role in the presidential election.”
What these researchers have demonstrated is not only the truth of the Bradley Effect, whereby significant numbers of white voters act against their stated intentions of voting for a black candidate. Their work also shows that much of the Bradley Effect is unconscious, and that it’s largely based on a perception, which is held by more than just white people, that the “real” Americans are “white” Americans.
In terms of the current elections, what these results also suggest is just how much the black and/or biracial candidate, Barack Obama, has working against him in the minds of American voters. After all, so strong is the “white equals American” bias that many even consider him less “American” than the former British prime minister, Tony Blair!
As the Washington Post reports,
During the primary season, [Thierry] Devos, at San Diego State University, along with colleague Debbie Ma at the University of Chicago, found that on a subconscious level, people more easily associated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with being American than Sen. Barack Obama. Clinton is white; Obama is biracial.
Even more remarkably, the psychologists found that the volunteers were quicker to associate former British prime minister Tony Blair with being American than Obama. Blair is white.
On a conscious level, the participants had no trouble identifying Obama and Clinton as American, and Blair as a foreigner. But Devos and Ma found that the subconscious associations mattered: People who were slower to see Obama as American on a subconscious level were less likely to be willing to vote for the senator from Illinois than people who more easily associated him with American symbols. This was true of both Republicans and Democrats.
In a final set of experiments completed just last week . . . researchers had found an identical pattern when they compared people's subconscious associations with Obama and his Republican presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain. On a conscious level, volunteers said that both Obama and McCain were American, but on a subconscious level, volunteers were quicker to associate McCain with being American than Obama -- and the strength of these subconscious associations predicted people's voting intentions.
"The less you see Obama as American compared to McCain, the less likely you are to vote for him," Devos said.
The recent race-baiting tactics of the McCain campaign operators (which include racially coded, “dog-whistle” efforts to mark Obama as “un-American”) may seem blunt, perplexing, and even idiotic. As well as frightening.
As this video shows, the McCain campaign has succeeded in appealing to deep-seated associations commonly conjured up from within the collective white psyche by Obama's race and by his father's Islamic faith. What this new research suggests is that the McCain campaign workers may recognize as well something that most white Americans don’t, which is just how profoundly the word “American” equals “white” in the American imagination.
Oddly enough, though, McCain’s usage of the white race card doesn’t seem to be working. It is true that some of the more rabid McCain/Palin fans have been riled up by the coded race-baiting into hoping and even calling for what amounts to the lynching of Obama.
As a reporter wrote yesterday after attending a Palin appearance in Scranton, Pennsylvania, “Supporters have been noted shouting ‘kill him,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘off with his head’ and other equally incendiary terms about Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Others have directly suggested Mr. Obama is a Muslim, which he is not, or a traitor.”
McCain did recently take the microphone from a woman who was vocalizing her fear of Obama because she thought he was an “Arab.” However, that action, which this woman’s overly blunt words basically forced him into taking, does little to mitigate McCain’s explicit approval of a slew of subconscious implications, further stoked by his campaign’s recent messages, that Obama’s race makes his status as a true American questionable. (And really, would it be so bad, so un-American, if Obama actually was a Muslim?)
As researcher Thierry Devos puts it while interpreting her study cited above, "Suggesting Obama is foreign or unknown offers a cover for racism.”
More specifically, what McCain is clearly implying is that the mere fact of his own whiteness (among, of course, other things) makes him more suited for the presidency than Obama.
But as I said, while the deeply implanted psychological and emotional associations in American minds between whiteness and American-ness are a powerful weapon that McCain is indeed deploying, it doesn’t seem be working very well. The polling gap between Obama and McCain has only widened in recent weeks, and potential voters cite McCain’s negative campaign ads (which lately comprise a full one hundred percent of his ads) as a primary cause.
It’s too easy, as well as flat-out wrong, to say that Obama is pulling ahead because most Americans are finally thinking “beyond race,” or that we’ve transcended race and are well on our way to a colorblind society. As the Implication Association Test so clearly reveals, the concept of race still has deeply powerful effects (you can find out the strength of your own unconscious racial biases by taking the test here).
So if and when Obama finally does win, he’s still going to face intense distrust regarding his viability as an American president. Part of that distrust will remain the simple fact that he’s not white, and thus, supposedly, not a “real American.”
[hat-tip for "McCain's white voters" photo to Jessie @ Racism Review]