Posted on August 19, 2009

Testing Obama’s Effect on Racial Attitudes

Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2009


The test results baffled Florida State University psychologist Ashby Plant. {snip}

Plant and her colleagues had just administered a racial Implicit Association Test to 74 white college students. A common tool in psychology lab work, the IAT purports to measure the kinds of biases people may not admit or even know they harbor. It is one of the more troubling, and fascinating, realities in Plant’s line of work that when the test is administered to whites, about 75% typically show some degree of anti-black bias.

But in this case, her subjects were displaying almost no bias against African Americans. In fact, about 45% appeared to be favoring blacks over whites.


It was spring 2008–a moment of mounting intensity in America’s presidential race. It was also the moment when Plant, 40, found herself delving into a new sub-specialty with few precedents in the social sciences. {snip}

{snip} How are racial attitudes changing, if at all, in the age of the first black president?

Plant and her colleagues began speculating that their surprising numbers had something to do with the candidate Barack Obama. {snip}


Thus far, some of the most widely discussed test results have been contradictory. If there has been an “Obama effect” on racial consciousness, it’s not clear yet what it is.

Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, conducted studies that suggested exposure to Obama’s convention speech and election helped black students close an achievement gap with whites on a verbal aptitude test.

But in another study, a New York University researcher, Joshua Aronson, found that thinking about Obama had no discernible effect on black students’ test scores.

At Stanford University, researchers led by graduate student Daniel Effron found what might be called a reverse Obama effect. In their studies, white Obama supporters showed favoritism for whites over blacks in certain hypothetical situations–perhaps because by supporting Obama, they felt bestowed with non-racist “moral credentials” that made them more comfortable siding with fellow whites.


To determine if Obama had accounted for a true change of mind, Plant and her main collaborator, University of Wisconsin psychologist Patricia G. Devine, would have to overcome a problem that has shaped the course of their field more than any other in recent years: How to record people’s racial attitudes when it has become taboo to openly voice prejudices?

One key tool is the Implicit Association Test. Developed in 1998 by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald and two other researchers, the test is still controversial among some scientists who question whether it can accurately measure such subtleties of thought.


When the users consistently show hesitation in matching, say, black faces with positive words or whites with negative words, believers in the test see the possible work of powerful, unconscious forces. Whether we like it or not, they argue, the mind sometimes struggles to make certain associations.

They are biases to which minorities themselves are not immune: In studies involving thousands of test participants on the Internet, about 40% of blacks showed an anti-black bias, and roughly 1 in 3 Muslims showed an anti-Muslim bias, said Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia researcher who runs Project Implicit, the ongoing Web project.

Plant and her team didn’t think they could show that Obama was the sole cause of reduced bias–it would be difficult to isolate his influence, given all of the stimuli out in the world. But the researchers thought they might be able to at least show a correlation by devising a two-part test.

In the first part, 229 University of Wisconsin students, all nonblack, were given Implicit Association Tests, then asked, among other things, to list five thoughts that came to mind when they considered black people.

Once again, the students, as a group, failed to show much anti-black bias.

Researchers then noted if the participants listed any “positive black exemplars”–for instance, Obama, Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. They found that students who listed a positive exemplar showed less bias on the IAT.

That alone was interesting, but was Obama the one reducing the bias scores?{snip}

Their solution was to call in 79 nonblack students for an experiment at Florida State. They too were given an IAT. Separately, the researchers exposed them, subliminally, to the words “black” and “white” by flashing them on a computer screen for 55 milliseconds each. (The effectiveness of such subliminal “priming” in advertising remains in question, but psychologists have used it effectively to influence people’s responses in lab settings for decades.)

The students then were shown a succession of letter groupings, some real words and some nonsense strings of letters, and asked to pick out the real words. Some of the words were crime-related. Other words were government-related, such as “politician” or “president.”

This exercise would test how quickly the students were able, when primed with the word “black,” to pick out the positive, government-style words, as compared with the negative words.

The researchers compared the results of the subliminal exercise to the IAT results. In essence: Those who responded more quickly to government-related words when primed with the word “black” also showed lower implicit prejudice.

The researchers concluded that Obama’s rise seemed to have influenced “the underlying associations at least some people carry around in their minds about black people.”


Despite the conflicting conclusions, Plant believes she is on to something–so much so that she is now trying to determine if she can design a study that would isolate Obama ascause of lowered bias.

Its design has consumed Plant and her research assistants much of the summer. In late June they gathered in a conference room in Florida State’s psychology building to see where they stood.

Plant nodded to graduate student Corey Columb, 23, who sat across the table. “The idea Corey had–an idea which I think is very clever–is to temporarily undo the [Obama] effect,” Plant said. {snip}

In other words: since they assume that Obama has inoculated people against bias, they hoped to temporarily reinfect a few volunteers. Then they would reintroduce half of them to images of Obama, to see if he could cure them.

But what black image could serve, for these purposes, as the anti-Obama?

“The ones we’ve come up with so far that would be relevant to the generation here at the university would be O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson,” Columb said, though he added that they were struggling. Would students know Simpson? And wasn’t Mike Tyson sort of rehabilitating his image?