"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Why Has Racial Prejudice Increased During The Obama Years?

In a widely reported recent AP Poll (in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Stanford University) the percentage of white Americans who harbor racial prejudices against blacks has actually increased during the last four years. Jonathan Capehart in a blogpost for the New York Times (10.30.12) writes:

In 2008, anti-black attitudes were held by 48 percent of Americans surveyed. Today, that number is 51 percent. When implicit racial attitudes are measured, that statistic jumps to 56 percent. The viewpoint is even worse for Hispanics: A poll done last year showed that anti-Latino attitudes were held by 52 percent of non-Hispanic whites. On the implicit racial attitudes test, the negative views of Hispanics goes to 57 percent.

The ‘implicit racial attitudes test’ is an adaptation of a familiar psychological test which matches descriptive words with images.  Most people, for example, associate flowers with good words, insects with bad; and while avoiding the usual racially stereotypical words like ‘lazy’ researchers can elicit subtle positive or negative associations through a range of words. The test is relatively new and anyone can take it by going to the website(https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/).

From a review of the literature generated in the short time after publication of these data, there are no confirmed reasons why this rise has occurred, although some suggest that it is because of President Obama – either the racial hatred buried in many people emerged after the unheard of and unconscionable election of a black man as President; or Obama did not do enough to use his ‘post-racial’ victory to consolidate the significant gains made in racial tolerance.

Harris [Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University], penned an op-ed for the New York Times on Sunday that argued, “The Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality.” And he charged that black elites and intellectuals have traded the substance of what might be achieved for the symbolism of having a black man in the Oval Office.

I don’t buy the second argument, for Obama’s silence on the matter should not increase racial prejudice.  It must be do to the former – he is a lightning rod for racial hatred.  I have spent a lot of time outside Washington, DC in the past few years, mostly in small towns far from the Nation’s Capital.  I lived and worked in areas where Obama was not only a president with whom one disagreed, but a man to be detested.  The conspiracy theories to which I had paid scant attention, assuming that they were espoused by a very few, were alive and thriving.  Never in the days of Watergate when Nixon was hated and vilified by the Liberal Establishment did I hear such virulent, poisonous attacks.  Nixon was hated because he lied, he covered up, and because he was ambitious beyond his means.  Obama is hated because he is assumed to be a Muslim, a Radical Black Activist, a Socialist, and a foreign-born traitor to the American cause. 

I have pondered this for all the years of Obama’s presidency.  Why did Bill Clinton not provoke the same visceral hatred as Obama?  He was certainly as liberal as Obama if not more.  Perhaps it was because he came from Arkansas, spoke with a Southern accent, and was raised poor, just like many whites in the South.  Or perhaps it was because he really did seem to feel the pain of most people who had not attained the American dream.  Or perhaps because he was such a good communicator and connected with his audience. Or perhaps because he was white.  I hate to come to that last conclusion as many of my Eastern liberal friends have.  I would like to believe otherwise and fight what seems to me a facile conclusion.  These new data have got me thinking again.

There is more to it than Obama, however.  Racial prejudice has increased across the board, says the AP poll, not just in areas of the country, like the South, where one might expect a disproportionate racial bias.  Since prejudice usually increases in difficult times when it is easy to blame The Other for one’s misery rather than the complexity of the economic system, perhaps people react strongly to what they see is the continuing preference for minorities.  Minority favoritism, a charge often leveled when people’s sense of fairness has been damaged, might be seen as rising because of Obama, himself a minority. 

With the high unemployment rate of the past four years, it is understandable if out-of-work people take out their frustration on those who they feel have gotten a break through government programs with their taxpayer dollars, when they haven’t. Harris suggests that the extreme political polarity in the United States in the past four years might be a contributing factor.  Obama and the Democrats are being portrayed as socialist income distributors; and poverty, gender, and race merchants, thus exacerbating already sensitive feelings among the white disenfranchised.

Racial discrimination is more than anything a function of income and class.  Few whites, except perhaps in those parts of the country where such discrimination is longstanding, historical, and deeply-rooted, would object to a black doctor, lawyer, or investment banker moving in next to them.  The animus against Obama notwithstanding, if Colin Powell or Morgan Freeman lived down the street, most people would be honored that they chose their neighborhood. Since blacks still have far less social mobility than whites, and proportionately fewer blacks are gaining higher socio-economic ranks, there are still relatively few Colin Powells to move in next door.

A recent report found that 53 percent of blacks born in the bottom income quintile remain there as adults, while only 33 percent of whites do.[45] Research has also found that the children of black middle-class families are more likely to fall out of the middle class.[33]

Despite the increased presence of blacks and women in the work force over the years, women and non-whites hold jobs with less rank, authority, opportunity for advancement and pay than men and whites,[46][47] a "glass ceiling" being said to prevent them from occupying more than a very small percentage in top managerial positions.

One explanation for this is seen in the networks of genders and ethnic groups. The more managers there are in an employees' immediate work environment, the higher the employees chances of interacting and spending time with high status/income employees, the more likely these employees are to be drawn on for promotion.[48][49] As of the 1990s, the vast majority of all clerical and office workers are women, but made up less than half of all managers. Less than 15% of all managers were minorities, while roughly a quarter of all clerical and office employees were. The networks of women and minorities are simply not as strong as those of males and whites, putting them at a disadvantage in status/income mobility. (Wikipedia)

In conclusion, these data were indeed a surprise to many.  After all, we thought, after electing a black president and moving into a post-racial era, discrimination would decrease not increase.  The lessons are clear.  First, the law of unintended consequences is alive and well.  It could be that Obama himself has contributed to this phenomenon in ways we could never have predicted; and second, race is alive and well in America, and it will not disappear as an issue until true economic equality is achieved.

That could take a long, long time.

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