Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Dark Side (so to speak) of Liberal Support for Obama

The findings of the experiment summarized in this article are sad and, for the most part, unsurprising: our political inclinations influence our perceptions. No surprise there, of course.

The particular form that influence takes in this case is, likewise, the opposite of shocking. The experiment demonstrates (or supposedly does--the article does not mention if or where it has been published) that the skin tone of a biracial man (President Obama) is perceived differently depending on one's political orientation, on one's presumed evaluation of his politics.

Conservatives appear to perceive Obama's skin color as darker both than liberals perceive it and than it actually is. That is, Obama's blackness is so magnified in the eyes of conservatives (who are presumably more inclined to evaluate Obama negatively as a political leader) that it is not only constitutive of their overall perception of him (there is no way for them to perceive him other than as a black man) but disproportionately emphasized in their ostensibly objective physical (visual) perception of him.

Depressing, obviously, but hardly shocking, right? Something in the nature of studies that show overeating causes weight gain, or that the proverbial fat meat really is greasy?

This article deserves more attention for two reasons, however.

First of all, the author's disinclination to probe the other side of the coin is troubling. Conservatives see Obama as blacker than he really is, and liberals see Obama as whiter than he really is. The author of the study (the interviewee) seems careful to mention both sides of this equation when asked an open question, but the journalist seems disturbed only by the first half. The final two questions (and answers) of the interview aptly highlight why it's a problem that conservatives see Obama as darker than he is.

There is no corresponding question dealing with why it might be a problem that liberals see Obama as lighter than he is.

And that is the second reason: it is a problem that liberals see Obama as lighter than he is, and (apparently) to a greater degree than conservatives make the opposite mistake (five times vs. two times more likely).

The author of the study explains the phenomenon well: "Which means that liberals, who are going to think that Obama is generally good and generally American, may have these subtle associations linking him to the concept of white, which is reflected in their representativeness ratings. The opposite would be true of conservatives."

But the implications he and the journalist ponder together lament only the conservative side of the equation: "It suggests that there are still deeper challenges to overcome before we can truly understand the perspective of someone we disagree with."

What challenges remain, however, in the presence of someone we agree with?

It is not good news, in other words--nor even neutral news!--that liberals do not perceive Obama as darker than he is, because they still perceive him as whiter than he is. Liberals and conservatives alike still participate in the racist dichotomy, even if liberals participate in the dichotomy in a way that allows them, ultimately, to support "even" a black man for president, if they agree with his policies.

If, for example, pictures of Alan Keyes or Clarence Thomas were substituted, liberals would, presumably, commit the error that conservatives commit regarding Obama: black skin = bad man, white skin = good man. The fact that they are able to see men who agree with them as participating in whiteness to some degree is small consolation. They still frame their approval in terms of whiteness.

The study also raises the question whether a blacker black man could achieve the same success. Is President Obama's success made possible only because of his biracial heritage? If it were impossible to code him as even partially white--if his speech patterns, his skin color, his physical shape were more insistently associated with Blackness--would it prove impossible to code him as intelligent and capable for any but the most rigorously race-conscious liberals (that is, those conscious of and attentive to issues of race)?

It is an accomplishment--with congratulations due both to President Obama and to the American people--that the Oval Office no longer has a "For Whites Only" sign on the door.

But it remains a bittersweet accomplishment, in light of this study. Even Obama's presumed supporters need him to participate in whiteness to some degree.

I do not envy him the tightrope he must walk, and my respect for the relative grace with which he walks it mounts daily.

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