More on the Psychological Impact of the New Yorker Cover

In the August 1st, 2008 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji wrote an excellent article entitled “The Science of Satire” about the failed attempt at political humor by The New Yorker on the cover of the July 21st 2008 edition. (See here)  She begins by quoting the artist Barry Blitt in his response to Huffington Post when asked if he regretted posting the article in retrospect. Blitt responds:

“Retrospect? Outcry? The magazine just came out 10 minutes ago, at least give me a few days to decide whether to regret it or not.”

Banaji makes clear in her next paragraph that she is not denying The New Yorker or Blitt’s First Amendment rights, merely pointing out their failure to understand

basic facts of information transmission that accompanied the reasoning behind the drawing.

In the same article, Banaji quotes the editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick defends the cover saying

“it’s a satire about the distortions and misconceptions and prejudices about Obama.”

She points out the flaw in this reasoning by using examples of other covers from the New Yorker that Remmick claims are equally as offending.

When the artist’s intention was to depict Cheney as the boss, he faithfully drew Cheney as the boss. That’s satire? When the artist’s intention was to depict the drowning of the administration, he sketched the drowning of the administration. Far out!

The difference that Banaji reveals and pokes fun at is that with other satirical comics, the cartoon depicts literally what

When presented with A and B in close spatial or temporal proximity, the mind naturally and effortlessly associates the two. Obama=Osama is an easy association to produce via simple transmogrification. Flag burning=unpatriotic=un-American=un-Christian=Muslim is child’s play for the cortex. For decades, psychologists have described the “sleeper effect” — the idea that information, even information we might reject at first blush, ends up persuading us, contrary to our intention, over time. That often occurs when the content of the message (Obama=Islamist) and the source providing the message (The New Yorker trying to be cute) have split off in our minds. When satire isn’t done right, as in the case of the Obama cover, the intended parody easily splits off from the actual and more blatant association.

With knowledge of the process that the mind uses to digest information, artists cannot blame their own ignorance for placing the association in the minds of Americans whose brains are quick to complete the equation of A=B by simple association.

Harvard psychologists have embarked on much research concerning this idea of implicit association. Check out the website for Project Implicit for more information.

(Note: This was prepared by Hannah and Amanda.)

Black Voters Still Taken for Granted

As the first serious black candidate for the presidency, the entire nation scrutinizes Obama’s every move. No one knew how he would approach his candidacy; many whites feared that he would approach running as “The Stereotypical Black Candidate,” while many blacks, including Jesse Jackson, hoped he would be a candidate to seriously take on black issues. He is clearly not running on this ticket, in fact his recent comments strongly point to this fact. The Economist’s recent article entitled Of race and the race,” had this to say about Obama’s unique stance:

Mr. Obama, though, is in a lucky position regarding black voters. Their early skepticism has given way to massive support. He is in the enviable position of being able to lob the occasional criticism at black pathologies to win white votes. Sensing this, and thus his own declining ability to wield grievance to win concessions, Mr. Jackson had some reason to be annoyed.

Obama is downplaying his blackness while simultaneously using his advantage as a black man to criticize using the white racial frame, thus gain votes from white Americans, particularly conservatives. Unfortunately, this Democratic attitude of knowing inherently that the black vote is guaranteed to be blue allows candidates to toss aside black issues. The same article from The Economist goes on to suggest this reason for Obama’s apathetic attitude towards black voters:

Blacks, for their part, tend to be inconveniently located either in deep-south states that Mr Obama cannot win, or in places that he is already likely to take. In any case, a few critical comments are unlikely to stop their backing him. Mr Jackson should not be surprised to see Mr Obama courting swing groups that he needs.

All the energy that Obama would put towards black voters if their vote for him was not inherent has been going toward the largest minority in the United States: Latinos. The Economist article says this:

If black communal influence has waned, it seems that of Latinos is rising. Both candidates wooed them this week with speeches to LULAC (a Latino equivalent to the NAACP). Over the weekend both will speak to a more strident group, La Raza. Latinos are now America’s largest minority. George Bush courted them, with pidgin Spanish, a promised focus on Latin America, and reforms that would offer many illegal immigrants a path to become legal. He won more of their votes than the typical Republican. But immigration reform failed, Mr Bush neglected Latin America and the Republicans’ anti-immigration stance, which sometimes carries a whiff of racism, are all driving Latinos to Mr. Obama.

The consequence of Obama’s push to gain white and Latino votes is his taking the black vote for granted.  It is hard to say whether this is intentional or not, but either way it is interesting that in vying for one voting demographic, another is necessarily slighted. Not surprising when one looks at the historical data of unmet campaign promises geared towards gaining black votes. The Economist’s article gives this example:

Republicans promised freed slaves “40 acres and a mule” after the civil war, but they failed to deliver, so blacks decided to “ride this donkey”–the Democratic symbol–“as far as it would take us”. With the introduction of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s black voters swung behind the Democrats in earnest. But some complain that Democrats now take their votes without delivering, or even that white Democrats take advantage of the all-but-guaranteed black support.

Since blacks were granted the right to vote, their vote has been taken for granted.

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe

Obama Using White Racial Frame to Further Campaign?

Tensions increased this week as Bill O’Reilly and Fox News publicized Jesse Jackson’s comments about Obama, “talking down to black people.” Some may argue that this criticism along with Jackson’s other comments will hurt Obama’s popularity and harm his campaign for the presidency. However, in his recent article entitled “Jackson’s ‘Crude’ Remarks May Give Boost to Obama,” John Salant argues just the opposite. As the title implies, Salant believes this divide with Jackson will help Obama in November. In the article, Salant quotes public policy professor Mark Rozell of George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia concerning Obama’s speech to members of a large black church in Chicago on Father’s day in which he condemned black fathers:

Obama’s effort to present himself as an advocate of responsible personal behavior, a position that Republican candidates like to secure as uniquely their own.

This embodies the common stereotype long entrenched in the white racial frame and replicated for hundreds of years in this country that portrays whites as having “family values” and depicts blacks in a very negative and immoral light. In addition to illustrating Obama as being strong on responsible personal behavior and family values, this incident distances Jackson, a longtime black leader in politics, from Obama. Jackson has been portrayed for decades as a “dangerous black man,” another common feature of the white racial frame (see Systemic Racism and Two-Faced Racism ). In distancing himself from Jackson, Obama lessens the chance of also being portrayed using this common archetype. Salant goes on in the article to quote social science professor Steffen Schmidt from Iowa State University, who comments:

Cynics are asking if Jackson made this comment on purpose to help Obama.

This incident and the reactions of the media and general public suggest that when Obama’s behavior and comments come from the white racial frame, his popularity increases. Does this mean that in order to win the white vote, Obama will have to distance himself from black voters? It does, according to David Schultz of Hamline University who is also quoted in the article, saying:

Obama should give Jackson and O’Reilly an award for helping his campaign.

The theme of pitting white voters against black voters is a common one in American politics. And, during this election it puts Obama in a difficult position. It also reveals the extent to which white-on-black racism still occurrs. The outcome in November will reveal, among many other things, whether Obama’s embodiment of the highly treasured ideals of the white racial frame did in fact benefit his campaign.

~ Hannah is an advanced undergraduate student at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. She will be guest blogging with us on some of her research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe