Backing Obama gives some voters license to favor whites over blacks, study shows
The election of Barack Obama was as much a milestone in civil rights history as it was a political event. In newspaper columns and crowded bars, around university campuses and family dinner tables, people have hailed the election of the first black president as proof of progress in the country's reckoning with race.
Now some Stanford psychologists are focusing on an irony they've found at the expense of those widespread feelings of racial harmony. In three experiments conducted before the November election, they found that expressing support for Obama makes some people feel justified in favoring whites over blacks.
"This is the psychological equivalent of when people in casual conversation say something like 'many of my best friends are black,'" said Daniel Effron, who conducted the studies with fellow graduate student Jessica Cameron and Benoît Monin, an associate professor of psychology. Their findings are slated for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
"They say that because they're about to say something else that they're concerned might be construed as prejudiced," Effron said.
Those people are trying to build what the psychologists call "moral credentials"—the license they feel is needed to express their true feelings about race that may upset or offend others.
In two studies that yielded the same results, participants were asked if they would hire a black or white officer to work in a police department with a history of racial tension.
The researchers expected the scenario to make people squirm. They figured many would be tempted to say the job is better suited for the white candidate—either because they might feel the black candidate would be uncomfortable working with racist officers, or because they harbored negative attitudes toward blacks.
"But they'd be uncomfortable saying the job is better suited for a white person than a black person because that could be construed as being prejudiced," Effron said.
So the participants—most of whom were white or Asian, and all of whom supported Obama—were divided into two groups. One group was allowed to openly endorse Obama; the other wasn't.
Those who could not express their support before making a hiring decision tended to play it safe by saying the job would be equally suited for either whites or blacks. But those who were allowed to pick up moral credentials by showing they endorsed Obama were more likely to say the white officer was a significantly better choice for the job.
Another test explored how moral credentials influenced people who harbored some prejudice toward blacks. Using the Modern Racism Scale, which gauges people's racial attitudes, the psychologists were able to identify participants who supported Obama despite having some negative feelings about blacks.
"None of them were Jim Crow racists," Effron said. "But some had more negative attitudes than others."
The participants assumed the roles of voters being asked to give local government money to two private organizations. One organization served a black community; the other, a white one. They were also told the black community group had already received money from another source.
The test subjects—who were again mostly white or Asian Obama supporters who also backed John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—were split into two groups. One group was allowed to show their support only for Kerry; the other was allowed to express support only for Obama.
When participants with more negative attitudes toward blacks could establish moral credentials by saying they backed Obama, they allotted more money to the white organization than those who could only endorse Kerry. Those who rated lower on the Modern Racism Scale tended to give more money to the black organization after endorsing Obama.
"Our results suggest that people with more positive attitudes toward blacks are less likely to seize on moral credentials as an excuse to favor whites," Effron said. "It's encouraging to know that endorsing Obama will not always result in the expression of views that are unfavorable to blacks. It's only when moral credentials combine with negative racial attitudes that we have cause for concern."
The findings leave Effron and his colleagues with two takes on how Obama's election influences how people talk about race.
"On one hand, there's concern that people may use their support for Obama as a pass, or license, to express views that are harmful to African Americans," Effron said. "But to the extent that expressing support for Obama reduces concerns about being perceived as prejudiced, it could also lead to the kind of open discussions about race that the president himself has encouraged."