Panelists Ponder the Weight of Prejudice in the Presidential Election

September 26, 2008

September 26, 2008 — A poll released Sept. 22 by the Associated Press suggests that racial prejudice could cost Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama up to 6 percentage points of support in the election, spurring yet another round in months of discussion about the role of race in the 2008 vote.

One more such discussion took place Thursday evening at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, where a roundtable panel of U.Va. professors who study race and gender expressed optimism about the declining impact of race in American politics.

Panelist Lynn Sanders, a politics professor, explained that the so-called "Bradley effect" — in which voters tell pollsters they will support a non-white candidate, but end up pulling the lever for the white candidate — has been well-documented in past American gubernatorial and Congressional elections. It was named for former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, a black candidate who lost the 1982 California governor's race despite being ahead in voter polls.

But the Bradley effect has been steadily declining over the years, according to Sanders' close study of numerous polls. Discounting the recent AP poll, she predicted that the Bradley effect will only be 1.5 to 2 percent in this election, and "may soon be nonexistent."

Panelist and fellow politics professor Vesla Weaver was quick to point out that even a 1 or 2 percent effect could be enough to swing the election to Republican John McCain.

This fall's election is like Christmas for scholars of race and gender in politics, with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the second woman to be nominated by a major party, running opposite the biracial Obama, who himself defeated Hillary Clinton, the most successful female presidential contender in history, said panelist Paul Freedman, a professor of politics who studies political ads.

Sanders said she was dismayed by the pessimistic tone of much of the public discussion of race and politics, which has focused on findings such as AP polls that find that four in 10 Americans agree with certain statements that reflect resentment toward blacks. Even that rate is way down from seven or eight in 10 in the past, she noted.

"There are still honest bigots," Sanders said. "But there are also people who are sincere egalitarians, and those are some of the people who have moved us to a situation where we can be open to the possibility of having a new type of president that we've never had before."

Identifying what Americans really think and feel about race is challenging, the panelists agreed. Psychology professor Brian Nosek discussed his study of implicit cognition, the thoughts and feelings outside of our control and awareness.

He noted that people can't observe their own mental operations. "Our conscious experience really is just a sliver of what is actually going on that influences our everyday perception, judgment and behavior," he said.

Nosek co-developed an online test, called the Implicit Association Test, to measure people's unconscious associations with race by measuring, in fractions of a second, how quickly they match positive or negative words with black or white faces. About 80 percent of the 500,000 people who have taken the test, including many who espouse egalitarian values, demonstrate a stronger association of black faces (including Obama's) with negative words than they do for white faces, he said.

Our unconscious attitudes play a role in our decision-making, and results of the Implicit Association Test are predictive of people's votes, Nosek said. But the extent of that role is unknown.

Political ads always carry implicit messages in addition to their explicit content, Freedman said. We cannot choose whether or not we receive various implicit messages, Nosek added.

American politics has a long history of ads with implicit messages that reinforce racial prejudices, Weaver said.

She pointed to a McCain ad that links Obama with another black politician, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who recently pleaded guilty to several criminal charges. If you watch the ad without sound, she explained, it scrolls words like 'perjury' and 'obstruction of justice', interspersed with images of Kwame and Obama's faces, conveying the message that "blacks equal crime, and Obama equals crime."

Similar messages have appeared in various forms for decades, but what's new this time around is that when the Obama campaign drew attention to the racial undertones of the ad, the McCain campaign responded by accusing Obama of "playing the race card."

Attempting to dismiss the attention to racism as trivial is a new tactic in American politics, Weaver said.

How, politics professor Nick Winter asked, do we sort out the effects of our implicit associations and our explicit commitments to egalitarianism that are also real?

He reported new research findings that when people are not paying attention or not motivated to think carefully about a topic, implicit attitudes have more power. But when people are prompted to think carefully about an issue, such as this fall's public discussion about race and equality, explicit thoughts about equality can outweigh implicit attitudes.

"We aren't slaves to our automatic minds," Nosek agreed. Our conscious minds can override the inclinations of our unconscious minds, he added, and the Civil Rights Movement has caused true change in people's explicit feelings.

Moderator Douglas Blackmon — Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and author of the new bestseller "Slavery By Another Name" — asked if societal self-awareness about racial issues blunts the effectiveness of the implicit racial messages in some political ads.

"I don't know. It may," Freedman said. But that's one of the important questions that we'll be looking at after the election.

The forum was sponsored by U.Va.'s Arts & Sciences magazine, following up a recent article that examined four of the panelists' research on race and gender.

— By Brevy Cannon