September 28, 2008

Wash Post OpEd: Obama's Subtle Hurdle

Just 46 years ago, riots erupted at the prospect of an African American man enrolling at the University of Mississippi. The progress our country has made on race was brought into focus Friday night when Barack Obama, the first African American presidential nominee, arrived at Ole Miss, where James Meredith's matriculation sparked clashes in 1962. Unfortunately, instead of frank considerations of the racial issues that persist in America, the discussions that have accompanied Obama's candidacy have frequently unfolded in ways unlikely to foster progress on interracial dialogue.

 Undoubtedly, Obama's race is playing a role in this election. It has helped him generate enthusiasm among African American and white voters. Conversely, some people simply will not vote for him because he is black. Precise numbers will be known only within the voting booth, but social science research on racial attitudes in job candidate evaluations sheds some light on how race may be affecting our collective judgment.

Selecting a candidate to vote for, after all, is like making a hiring decision for the country's top job. Studies of " aversive racism" have shown that when reviewers compare identical résumés of black and white job applicants, white candidates are rated more highly than black candidates. Paradoxically, this discrepancy becomes more significant the more qualified the candidates are. While modestly qualified candidates of different races may be evaluated relatively equally, higher-qualified African American candidates are, on average, subjectively judged to be inferior to white candidates whose credentials are objectively identical. The discrepancy is exaggerated when the job to be filled is superior to the job held by the evaluator. Part of the reason is that while white candidates were considered "highly skilled," black candidates were considered "fortunate," the implication being that results based on skill are likely to be repeated, whereas those based on luck are not.
In the majority of these evaluations, individual racism or racial prejudice is not driving the evaluators -- each evaluator is earnestly attempting to select the best applicant. Yet, the research pioneered by Jack Dovidio and Sam Gaertner, among others, suggests that African American job candidates must be objectively more qualified than white applicants to be subjectively perceived as the best candidate. It seems reasonable, then, that the same type of earnest but biased evaluation could be affecting Obama's campaign.

Commentators have not shied from citing the influence of race on Obama's prospects. Recently, some have argued that only racism is to blame when trying to explain why the Democratic nominee had not pulled further ahead in national polls. Others have called cries of racism an excuse for Obama's inability to assuage voters' genuine questions about his readiness for the job. But ignoring or minimizing the effect of race -- pretending that criticisms of Obama's readiness or elitism or good fortune are entirely independent of the color of his skin -- is to minimize the lasting impact of our nation's history of race relations.

The effect that race has on Obama's campaign is far more subtle, and powerful, than the ballots of those who reveal their closeted bigotries only inside the voting booth. Millions of Americans have been breathing the smog of racial stereotyping their entire lives; their decisions, like those of the evaluators in the studies, are unsurprisingly affected.

In Oxford, we could see how much progress our country has made. Rather than continuing accusatory conversations on race that only serve to thicken the smog, let's move forward recognizing both how far we've come and how far we have yet to go toward perfecting our union.

See the Washington Post version here.