“Implicit Racial Bias” and Preference for Republican Candidates over Obama

At UW Today, a University of Washington publication, Molly McElroy recently published a summary of research by Anthony Greenwald at the University of Washington with some other psychological researchers. The title of her article is “Unconscious racial attitudes playing large role in 2012 presidential vote.”

McElroy summarizes their current and earlier research:

In a study done just prior to the 2008 presidential election, Greenwald and colleagues found that race attitudes played a role in predicting votes for the Republican candidate John McCain.

They used the implicit association test (IAT), which we have discussed a bit previously here. One version of the IAT has respondents match white and black faces to desirable and undesirable words, and the speed/difficulty in matching in used to judge “implicit” or “unconscious racial bias.”

Most recently, during the 2012 Republican primaries they collected online data from nearly 15,000 voters, and have found that the intensity of white preference on a version of the IAT (and other measures) links to conservative political preferences:

Greenwald asked survey-takers about their political beliefs, how “warmly” they felt toward black and white people, and which presidential contender they preferred. Because the survey was conducted in the first four months of 2012, it included the five main Republican hopefuls – Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – as well as Obama.

. . . . Greenwald found that favoritism for Republican candidates was predicted by respondents’ racial attitudes, both their self-reported views and their implicit biases measured by the IAT. Greenwald emphasized that the study’s finding that some candidates are more attractive to voters with pro-white racial attitudes does not mean that those candidates are racist.

An odd comment that last one. Such preferences for whiteness over blackness are of course “racist” if one means by that term thinking and operating out of a conventional white-racist framing of U.S. society. And the Republican candidates themselves certainly did a good bit of that white racial framing over the primaries.

The journalist McElroy, and apparently some of the researchers, seem a bit surprised that President Barack Obama’s election did not reduce this white racial preference for whites. But such negative results will not be surprising to the social scientists who write for this blog, or for most of our social science and other readers, as much social science and other data beyond the IAT research articles would lead one to expect such findings.

Greenwald is cited as explaining the continuing “racial bias” among white voters in regard to President Obama with this interesting explanation:

[Greenwald] suspects that Obama’s power as president in 2012, compared with his lesser status as candidate in 2008, may have “brought out race-based antagonism that had less reason to be activated in 2008.”

That is, whites with strong racial biases directed at black Americans may be even more disturbed now that a black man has great power as president. I suspect he is right about that, as our extensive data on the racist attacks on Obama inside and outside the Republican Party in our book, Yes We Can?: White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Election demonstrate. (I also develop a broad argument about a centuries-old link of U.S. politics to white racism in its many forms in a new Routledge (2012) book, White Party, White Government: Race Class and U.S. Politics.)

One major limitation of the typical psychological interpretations of the IAT research findings is that these otherwise creative social psychologists are handicapped by old and very limiting concepts like “bias” and “racial prejudice.” Such white racial views and attitudes are only a small part of the broad white racial frame that has been drilled into almost all American heads, of whites and others, now for centuries. That dominant white racial frame includes these racial biases but also racial stereotyping, racial narratives, racialized emotions, racial images, and inclinations to discriminate. The problem is the hoary and dominant white framing, the dominant white worldview, not just some racial bias.

In addition, IAT results showing that even relatively “egalitarian” whites still exhibit “unconscious racial bias” is much better explained as these whites revealing significant elements of a deep white racial framing—-a framing that allows more liberal whites to truly believe they are colorblind even as they still see the world very much through elements of a white racial framing of society generated in their minds from cradle to grave. Without major deframing, reframing, and counter-framing — especially in a true liberty and justice direction — the old white racial frame still dominates the landscape of white minds and the minds of many others.