Wednesday, October 15, 2008

play the role of "real" americans

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]


  1. Well, at least the person who made the sign spelled "right" correctly...Regarding the Bradley Effect, I think there are a number of people who won't vote him because he is black but have found another "legitimate" reason (these are not the he's a terrorist folks). But, what I am really concerned about are the people who have stated they would vote for him when polled but when they walk into the voting booth will make a different decision.

  2. Agreed, there is a false mindset that equates the term "American" as meaning white. I found this theory to be true with the Reverend Wright scenario. Wright was critical of America's foreign policy, as well as America's past transgressions, yet, most white people I've discussed Wright with believe in their minds that Wright's "God Damn America" comment somehow exposed a direct indication that he was racist against whites even without actual anti white comments being uttered from his mouth.

  3. Here is what I don't understand about the Bradley Effect...
    Why would any white person feel compelled to lie to a pollster about their intentions?
    First of all, they're anonymous, so there are absolutely no social repurcussions for telling the truth.
    Second, it's not as though racist respondents have to admit they're racist when answering truthfully that they'll be voting for the white guy. They can always say it's because they support policy X or policy Y.
    I sure as hell haven't noticed that other white people pretend to support Obama when they really support McCain. So why would they pretend such a thing when talking to a pollster they don't even know personally?

  4. I find it interesting that White people want to be given the benefit of the doubt when Black people condemn the virulent hatred of whites against blacks, but that courtesy is never accorded to us.

    Whites condemn me as a black person as ugly, stupid, HIV postive ridden, has 20 kids, but supposedly upstanding whites want you to give THEM the benefit of the doubt.

    In regards to the debacle of hate that Palin is spreading amongst White voters, odd that no one is vociferiously denouncing her contemptuous hate filled rhetoric, yet they played the Rev Wright loop over and over and over on CNN.

    Whites always--ALWAYS have the benefit of the doubt.



    However, it has to be pointed out that lofty campaign talking points can't placate people who are proudly and openly racist. They still don't want to see a black person in the position of ultimate political authority, not even an eloquent, biracial, photogenic politician who never addresses black people's needs and who even has a white grand mother to trot out at convenient times. The very idea that a black man will be president makes these people very, very angry.

    [the white voter] will blame black people for the mortgage crisis and for every other crisis in the world. Ironically, so will some of the white people who vote for Obama. His [Obama's} strategy of distancing himself from black people allows them to support him while still heaping disdain on the rest of black America. Obama appeals to many white people precisely because of his own denunciation of black demands for justice, or even the memory of past injustice. Rev. Jeremiah Wright knows that all too well.

  6. I've wondered about those things too, sarahmc--good questions. Actually, so do others who know more about polling then I do, such as some folks in this ABC News story who cast doubt on the whole idea of a significant "Bradley Effect":

    "If people wanted to lie to us, it would be much simpler for them simply to decline to participate in the poll in the first place," said Gary Langer, ABC News' polling director.

    Modern history seems to disprove the Bradley effect as well. In 2006, there were five statewide races with black candidates for U.S. Senate or governor that the polls got right each time.

    "When a pre-election poll goes bad, usually the reason is it made a bad estimate of who was going to show up to vote, not that its respondents lied," Langer explained.

    Analysis from ABC's polling unit found 25 polls that understated support for Hillary Clinton. However, there were just as many that understated support for Obama; not a single poll overstated support for Obama outside the margin of error.

    Moreover, there are key players who were around at the beginning of the reputed Bradley effect, who say it was never true to begin with. . .

  7. Non-white people will continue to be subject to the system of racism (white) supremacy because non-whites are in total denial of their degree of subjection. Non-whites are not, under the system of white supremacy, AMERICANS. Non-whites have not "UNDERSTOOD" the language. In fact, as pointed out by Willie Lynch, author of "The Making of a Slave," "The more a foreigner knows about the language of another country the more he is able to move through all levels of that society. Therefore, if the foreigner is an enemy of the country, to the extent that he knows the body of the language, to that extent is the country vulnerable to attack or invasion of a foreign culture. For example, if you take a slave, if you teach him all about your language, he will know all your secrets, and he is then no more a slave, for you can’t fool him any longer, and BEING A FOOL IS ONE OF THE BASIC INGREDIENTS OF ANY INCIDENTS TO THE MAINTENANCE OF THE SLAVERY SYSTEM." Moreover, writes Lynch, "if you told a slave that he must perform in getting out “our crops” and he knows the language well, he would know that “our crops” didn’t mean “our crops” and the slavery system would break down, for he would relate on the basis of what “our crops” really meant. So you have to be careful in setting up the new language; for the slaves would soon be in your house, talking to you as “man to man” and that is death to our [...] system."

  8. This post reminds me of the movie "The Good Shepard", specifically the scene where there is an exchange between Joe Pesci's and Matt Damon's characters.

    Joseph Palmi (Joe Pesci): Let me ask you something... we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

    Edward Wilson (Matt Damon): The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

    Matt Damon's response is simple yet true for that time period and even today. Its a perception that all Americans (regardless of race) subconsiously subscribed to. Hopefully we are on our way to changing that perception.


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