How Obama could be bad for racial equality

America may have a Black president, but the country’s racial inequalities, in relation to education, health, incarceration, and wealth, remain rife. In two new studies, psychologists have documented effects that suggest the election of President Obama could, ironically, exacerbate this racial inequality rather than help eradicate it.

Daniel Effron and colleagues presented dozens of predominantly White undergrad students with one of two scenarios that would reveal their favouritism towards White people: one was a hiring decision, the other related to the allocation of funds to communities. Crucially, the students were asked to make their choices about the hiring or funding either before or after they had declared whether they planned to vote for Barack Obama, in what was then the upcoming Presidential election.

Students who declared their intention to vote for Obama before making the hiring/funding decisions subsequently showed more favouritism towards White people than did students who made their decisions first. A third study showed this effect was particularly apparent among more racially prejudiced students.

“Our findings raise the possibility that the opportunity to vote for an African-American for President could have reduced some voters’ concerns about appearing prejudiced, thereby ironically increasing the likelihood that they would favour Whites in subsequent decisions,” the researchers said.

In a separate study, Cheryl Kaiser and colleagues compared the support of dozens of predominantly White undergrad students for anti-racist social policies ten days prior to, and one week after, the election of President Obama. They found that support for anti-racist social policies – for example, encouraging diversity in business – was lower after Obama’s election compared with before. The students also stated that America had made more progress towards racial progress, and they expressed more support for meritocracy, when asked after Obama’s election compared with when they were asked before.

“Barack Obama’s presidential victory may have ironic and unintended consequences for remedying racial injustice in the United States,” Kaiser’s team said. “Specifically, construing President Barack Obama’s victory as an achievement in race relations may hinder efforts to eliminate the racial disparities that continue to plague and divide the United States.”

ResearchBlogging.orgKaiser, C., Drury, B., Spalding, K., Cheryan, S., & O’Brien, L. (2009). The ironic consequences of Obama’s election: Decreased support for social justice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 556-559 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.01.006

Effron, D., Cameron, J., & Monin, B. (2009). Endorsing Obama licenses favoring Whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (3), 590-593 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.02.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 thoughts on “How Obama could be bad for racial equality”

  1. Almost sounds as if they’re blaming Obama for being elected, rather than the asshats for acting like that. What’s next, blaming a rape victim for the rape?

  2. Once a black president is elected maybe people think it is about merit after all and there’s no need for positive discrimination? There are very disadvantaged white groups too in the US.

  3. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the cited articles. I don’t konw what “anti-racist social policies” the Digest is referring to, or what “encouraging diversity in business” actually means.

    If the post is referring to affirmative action policies to favor individuals who consider themselves to be part of a minority race, I would question their description as “anti-racist.” Affirmative action policies are explicitly racist: they classify people by race and treat them differently based upon their percieved race. The abstract in the Kaiser, et al. article refers to “policies designed to address racial inequality,” which I suspect is a much more accurate description. The Digest should have stuck with the original description.

    It is notable that the word “racist” does not appear in either abstract, and

    If it means “affirmative action” policies where governments or businesses provide preferrences to businesses of indiviudals or racial minorities

  4. mm, here are some of the descriptions Kaiser et al gave for the policies that I summed up as “anti-racist”:

    “policies that address racial injustice”, “affirmative action”, “policies that benefit minorities”, “policies aimed at mitigating racial injustice”, “policies aimed at remedying discrimination”.

    Specific policies for which the participants were asked to report their level of support were: “affirmative action programmes”, “desegregation programmes that ensure diversity in public schools”, “business should increase their efforts to increase diversity in the work place”, “efforts should be made to promote equal access to healthcare for minorities.”

    Support for these policies and programmes was lower after Obama’s election compared with before.

  5. Thank you for the clarification.

    I also noticed that the bottom of my prior comment contains sentence fragments I intended to delete. Sorry for any confusion.

  6. It's not Obama's fault, it's just that it may have unintended consequences among stupid white people.

  7. There are also issues not considered. For example, there is the fact that the US has a relatively unique quandry in terms of cultural identity, and especially so between its white and black citizens whose families have been in tense co-existence from the colonial era. There has been an extraordinarily longstanding division based one what one group perceives the other to be, and it is ingrained into the very notion of what it is to be American. There is also, of course, the often ignored fact that much of the benefit from the affirmative action programs do not target by race, per se, but by under-representation. The single greatest beneficiaries of these programs have actually been white females. Likewise with many of the other social welfare programs (to the extent they exist and function), it is part of the majority's identity construct to perceive these things as being for blacks, and against themselves, even though the actual numbers do not support it.

    As regards the Obama presidency's unintended (and decidedly negative) impact, it is probably a net gain because it brings what would otherwise remain largely subconscious and subtle racially driven behavior to a forefront for discussion and observation. The major problem, I'm afraid, is that people are unwilling to recognize it for what it is, in the moment because of the cognitive dissonance between their concept of self and culture, with the reality of what those concepts are built on and perpetuated by.

    There is, of course, also the role that luck and circumstance play. It is rarely about merit, but about being fortunate. But those are issues that speak more to socioeconomic divisions than, specifically, the racial ones. It just so happens, as a result of history, that members minority groups are more likely than those of majority groups to fall into the unfortunate category.

    *a brief reflection by a black american male

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