When Obama got elected a couple of researchers conducted an experiment to see if Obama’s election would have any tangible effect on the racial achievement gap. The logic was there…there’s this thing called “stereotype threat” that causes members of social groups to perform up to or down to the expectations of that group. You’re black, and you take a math test…and in the course of taking that test somehow you are reminded that blacks don’t do well at math.
You end up performing poorly on the test.
Similarly, if you’re Asian American and you take a math test…and in the course of taking that test somehow you are reminded that Asians DO well at math, you end up performing well on that test.
Anyway, the New York Times reported the results.
Now I’ve got to say off the rip, that these results have not passed peer review–that is to say the researchers here have not published their paper in an academic journal. Until THAT point, their results don’t mean a whole helluva lot.
But it got me to thinking. We wouldn’t necessarily expect that Obama would have an effect on academic achievement–this is why to be honest with you I don’t buy their argument.
We WOULD though, expect Obama to exert some type of influence on black and white public opinion. Isn’t this part of the whole “hope” thing? Electing Obama would not only change the government, but through electing him we would change the way we govern each other, the way we govern ourselves.
Beyoncé performed at one of the Inaugural Balls, and Robin Roberts interviewed her afterwards. I’ll never forget that interview because of what Beyoncé said. “He makes me want to be better. This is the greatest day of my life.”
And that’s it right?
So a number of political scientists have been interested in cue-taking. In how we as citizens take cues from our leaders, using them to fill in information we might not have. I might not have the time or the knowledge to go into depth about the banking scandal. But if someone I trust politically tells me that the banking scandal was caused by X, then I’m going to use that cue, that signal, to help me arrive at a conclusion. Without having to do all that heavy lifting. It’s efficient, it’s effective.
One slight problem.
What if the people you trust send you astray? Send you against your own political instincts, or rather what your political instincts SHOULD be given your background (your race, class, gender, etc.)?
So a couple of political scientists tested this with blacks. Would they be more likely to agree with the premise that blacks should rely on themselves if they were exposed to statements from prominent blacks saying they should? They found that not only were they more likely to agree if blacks said it than whites, they were more likely to agree even if the African American were someone like Clarence Thomas (who presumably votes against their interests but is black), compared to someone like Ted Kennedy (who presumably votes FOR their interests but is white).
Now I had a problem with this. I didn’t have a problem about the FINDINGS necessarily. But I had a problem with how the findings were EXTENDED. The political scientists in this case thought that taking the cue in this case automatically meant changing POLICY PREFERENCES. You believe blacks need self-help more than anything else? You support reducing government aid for welfare.
However it doesn’t have to work like this. All sorts of black folk–nationalists particularly–could believe that blacks should rely on themselves while still believing the government should take responsibility and do their part.
Now for political scientists this project is potentially important because of what it tells us about public opinion. And yes it’s important to me for that reason as well. However given Obama’s verbiage about black kids needing to get away from the XBOX, his verbiage about black nations needing to stop living in the colonial past, there is a more practical consideration that drives my research here. Does Obama’s statements like these actually DAMPEN support for progressive policy?
So I ran an experiment on blacks and whites. I exposed a group of 250 blacks and 250 whites to one of 8 doctored news stories. Four of them blamed black circumstances on black men. Four of them blamed black circumstances on the lack of government intervention. And each story was connected to one of four sources–Obama, Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, or the New York Times. Because I had to make the stories plausible I couldn’t use a white Republican, nor could I use someone like Clarence Thomas–they’d never blame black circumstances on the lack of government intervention.
I then had them fill out a survey, first asking them whether they agreed with the person.
I got the results back and just started examining them.
My results so far are both heartening and disheartening.
I’ll talk about this more in depth later, but suffice it to say that when whites read stories featuring Obama blaming black men they are far more likely to agree with him than when exposed to the New York Times structural attribution story. And while whites also agree with the statement when Clinton says it, they don’t agree as much as when either Obama or Powell says it. NONE of the “government intervention” stories had an effect on them.
When it comes to blacks? The only elite black male blame treatment that has an effect on them is Powell’s. When they read the story attributed to Powell, they were much more likely to agree with him than when exposed to the control. On the other hand, there was only ONE government intervention story that had an effect on them–Obama’s.
So there are two sets of questions that are important here to me: does this translate into policy support? Does this translate into diminished sentiment towards blacks?
Answers to follow.