The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Colored Perceptions

An Intriguing Study May Suggest Extremist Political Partisanship Is the New Racism

Psychologists demonstrated long ago that from the moment we first glimpse a stranger, human beings start drawing conclusions about that person. New research suggests those conclusions affect the picture we come to draw of that person in our minds, even down to details supposedly as factual as skin tone.

Eugene Caruso, a social psychologist and researcher at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, has completed analyzing the results of several experiments soon to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Caruso has a lifelong interest in how people’s perspectives affect they way they view “indisputable” hard data. In his first experiment, Caruso showed graduate students one of two photographs of a biracial candidate for a hypothetical position in local government. Caruso digitally lightened the candidate’s skin tone in one photo and darkened it in the other. He also quizzed students about their views on a variety of topical issues.

Caruso told every student the candidate agreed with him or her on about half the issues and disagreed with him or her on the other half. He then asked students if they would support the candidate for the position. Caruso found, with all things equal on the issues, that students shown the photo with darkened skin were significantly less likely to endorse the candidate than students shown the photo with lightened skin.

The study confirms previous findings by scientists, according to Keith Maddox, a psychology researcher at Tufts University. He says American society contains long-held cultural prejudices whereby we view light/white things as being positive and dark/black things as being negative.

Caruso was interested whether the association worked in the opposite direction, so he turned his first experiment on its head. This time, he used the most well known actual biracial politician in America – President Obama.

A few weeks before the 2008 election, he asked approximately two hundred students to identify their political/ideological affiliations as well as whether they intended to vote for Obama. Then he showed each of them three photographs and asked which one was “most representative” of Obama to them. One photograph left Obama’s skin tone its natural shade. The other two photos digitally lightened and darkened Obama’s skin tone respectively.

Caruso found liberals were twice as likely as conservatives to opt for the light skin photo, while conservatives were significantly more likely than liberals to choose the dark skin photo. Even when he controlled for racial attitudes by using standard tests designed to measure prejudice, the preferences persisted.

Caruso notes the partisan influence only works for biracial candidates. Students shown similar doctored photographs of John McCain provided no correlation between preferences for lighter/darker skin tones based on political or ideological affiliation. Some ambiguity in racial identify is necessary before the subconscious consistently overrides what the eyes are actually seeing or the conscious mind actually knows.

Still, “Our beliefs . . . in this case our political beliefs, can really have pretty profound effects on how we see the world,” concludes Caruso.

Some who have previewed Caruso’s research in advance have hailed it as groundbreaking. “This is the first study to show how the impact of political allegiances can extend down to our literal perception of the physical world and the people in it,” lauds David Dunning, a social psychologist at Cornell University.

Yet others have raised valid criticisms. Most notably, only about ten percent of the students surveyed were non-white. Caruso acknowledges this sample is too small but insists their results “trended” in the same directions as those of white respondents.

The counterargument runs that people are likely to see those they agree with on important issues as more like themselves and those they disagree with as less like themselves. This would explain the preference for the lighter Obama photo by like-minded whites and so forth. Given a large enough sample, African Americans with lighter skin might prefer the digitally lighter Obama, while those with darker skin would opt for the digitally darker Obama.

Even if true, however, this only casts aspersion on the study’s assumption of “light = good, dark = bad” as an all-encompassing cultural norm. It would not change the underlying finding that political preferences can influence how we perceive skin color.

Diana Owen, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University, criticizes the study for insufficient controls over photos already manipulated by researchers. For example, the Obama photo with darkened skin shows him in a business suit while the photo with lightened skin shows in casual attire. How do we know respondents were not influenced by clothing preferences, queries Owen?

While Caruso’s initial research needs confirmation and further study, he raises some intriguing possible insights concerning the bitter charges of racism and reverse racism raised by those on both sides of the political spectrum following the election of a man billed as the first post-racial President.

Liberals maintain lingering racial prejudice, rather than fears of socialism, drive the fierce Republican opposition in Congress to Obama’s key legislative issues as well as supposedly grass roots demonstrations, such as “tea parties.” Conservatives scoff at these claims. They point to statements by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Attorney General Eric Holder as well as Barack and Michelle Obama that they say reflects a persistent anti-white bias.

Yet what if blaming racism on political partisanship is actually putting the cart before the horse? Caruso’s research suggests that rather than racism, either consciously or subconsciously, causing some politicians and voters to view Obama with over-hostility, as former President Jimmy Carter contentiously suggested several months ago, it may be intense politically disagreement subconsciously causing a racial element to be re-injected into the debate. The same would be true for the opposite side, with liberal white guilt as a catalyst.

We continue becoming so polarized that it is increasingly common to hear statements like, “All Democrats believe . . .” or “All conservatives like . . .” just as we would once have heard ignorant statements along the lines “All whites believe . . .” or “All blacks like . . .”. We continue to pigeonhole individuals and our reactions to them increasingly on the sole basis of their political Party or for whom they voted in the last election, as we would have once classified them by race or skin tone.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Hate, like any energy, cannot be created or destroyed so much as it just changes form. Racism, while it still exists, does not have the same impact on American culture and politics that it once did. The election of a biracial President twelve months ago stands in stark defiance to its enduring sway. Sadly, however, Caruso’s research suggest that extremist political partisanship, which raises its ugly head far too often on both sides of the ideological spectrum, is itself the new racism in a so-called post racial America.

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