Many have speculated on the effects that Barak Obama’s election as President would have on not just black-white relations but also on attitudes and behaviors in the black community which for the first time in our nation’s history has available a black role model in the nation’s highest office. Anecdotal evidence of positive effects abounds. A Washington Post feature described how Obama’s campaign, election, and “kick off the school year” speech inspired black youth in and around Washington, D.C. One young man who dropped out of school in the sixth grade thanked Obama for his newfound dedication to securing a GED. A seemingly nerdy 11 year old was inspired by Obama to set his sights on his school class presidency. He ran and won. Bright high school students who before they heard Obama talk were content to get by on native ability said they were inspired to rework their essays before turning them in and in other ways reported performing to higher standards. Thus, the effects of the Obama presidency on black attitudes and behavior is potentially profound.
A similar argument can be made about Obama’s influence on white attitudes and behavior. While running for President, Obama inspired numerous whites, including especially the young, to not just vote but also to work for him. In some ways, he was received like a rock star, including the rock star like event event in a packed football stadium that highlighted the draw of his campaign. Since his election, the nation has closely watched the first family whose interactions are regarded by many whites as a model of what family relationships should be, and both President Obama and his wife Michelle are regularly at or near the top of the lists of people whom white Americans most admire.
My goal in this brief essay is, however, neither to report collected anecdotes nor to present systematic data. Rather it is to offer a theoretical perspective on factors that may motivate and condition any “Obama effect and, in particular, to suggest one mechanism that may be crucial.” This perspective is, however, speculative rather than proven. It provides one lens through which one may consider the likelihood and motivation of an Obama effect, but I lack empirical evidence, even anecdotal evidence, that would put my theory to a test.
Students of prejudice and intergroup relations have typically been far more concerned with understanding and changing the behavior and attitudes of dominant, discriminating majorities than they have with understanding and changing the attitudes and behavior of discriminated-against minorities. But the two are interrelated. If the Obama presidency has worked to reduce prejudice and improve black-white relationships, it is likely that some of this effect will be attributable to changing black attitudes and behavior rather than to direct effects on white attitudes and behavior or on white-black cooperation. Indeed, if black-white relationships improve markedly in the coming half decade, it may be hard to prove empirically the importance of the election. Obama was elected in the midst of trends that by themselves may be reducing white racial bias. The generations frightened by the race riots of the 1960s are aging or dying out, crime rates have dropped substantially for almost all major crimes, teenage pregnancies, including black teenage pregnancies, have fallen dramatically, and cross-racial marriage rates have greatly risen. Moreover, 40 years of affirmative action have helped create a vastly expanded black middle class and so diversified America’s college campuses that most of today’s white elites and opinion leaders have gone to school with blacks and/or work today alongside talented blacks.
But even if it is difficult to find convincing evidence of an effect on America’s racial attitudes uniquely attributable to Obama, it is still interesting to think about the psychological forces that might drive such an effect. I believe one such force, but by no means the only one, is defined by a concept I introduced in a brief article that appeared long ago in an obscure short-lived journal. (Lempert, 1974). The concept I call moral dissonance. This term intentionally calls to mind the well-established concept of cognitive dissonance, which posits a drive to consistency in cognitive evaluations. If, for example, Sally likes Joe and Joe likes Sarah, but Sally doesn’t like Sarah and Sally knows that Joe does like her, Sally’s feelings and cognitions are dissonant. Her favorable attitude toward Joe is in tension with her perception that Joe likes Sarah whom she, Sally, does not like. If Joe is a true friend and Sarah is a genuine enemy, how can Joe possibly like Sarah? Dissonance theory suggests that to resolve the mental stress attributable to these inconsistent perceptions Sally’s perceptions or feelings will change. Either she will exit from her relationship with Joe, see Joe as less of a friend, see Sally as not really an enemy or decide that she was mistaken in thinking Joe liked Sally. What is unlikely is that her inconsistent perceptions will endure.
Reflecting on this theory of cognitive dissonance, I argue that there is a similar drive to consistency across moral evaluations. An example of how this works is found in the experience and behavior of parents who love their children in part for their moral character, hold religious attitudes that condemn homosexuality and learn that their children are gay. The stress caused by these inconsistent attitudes is obvious and attempts to make them more congruent are familiar. Some parents engage in denial; they refuse to believe their children are really gay. Others have reacted in extreme ways, either disowning their children and kicking them out of the house or discarding once deeply held aspects of their religious beliefs and becoming activists in the gay rights movement. Still others adopt middle positions such as welcoming their children into their home but not their children’s partners so that they are not confronted with the fact of their child’s homosexuality and can more easily put it out of mind.
In my earlier work, I used the idea that incongruities in moral judgments worked like cognitive and attitudinal incongruities to suggest that the drive state arising from such incongruities and the felt need to reduce them was an important mechanism leading to the decriminalization of behaviors once thought criminal. One example I offered is that prosecutions for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts came to an abrupt halt when the possessed children who identified witches went from fingering people on the fringes of the Puritan community to accusing the wife of the governor, a woman whose moral character was hard to question. In similar fashion, there were substantial reductions in the opprobrium and penalties attached to marihuana use after its popularity spread beyond blacks and jazz musicians to otherwise mainstream white college students. I suggest that the concept also applies to changes in racial attitudes, for moral dissonance is a mechanism that can help explain the well-established finding that in many settings contact between blacks and whites reduces prejudice, with its effects being greatest when people of different races depend on each other to reach a common goal; that is when members of each race are committed to and see each other as committed to a common conception of the good.
The theoretical perspective I offer is consistent with recent findings in neuroscience and understandings of the dynamics of decision making which show that emotional triggers not only can have powerful effects on cognition, but they can also lead to decisions that from a cognitive/logical standpoint appear irrational. It is similarly consistent with research using the Implicit Association Test (IAT) which indicates that many whites more readily associate positive characterizations (e.g. generous) with white faces than with black ones while negative characterizations (e.g. criminal) are more readily associated with black faces than with white ones. The argument I draw from research on prejudice and from the IAT research in particular is that it is cognitively easy for whites, typically without realizing it, to regard black skin and stereotypically black facial features as morally suspect while white skin and white facial features are from a moral standpoint unproblematic. If a white unconsciously associate blacks with morally wrong attitudes and behavior (crime, riots, illegitimacy, hating whites), then working with a black companion toward a common goal or perceiving a black candidate’s policies as more desirable than the white candidate’s will create the drive state I have called moral dissonance. One way a white evaluator may resolve the tension arising from this drive state is by relaxing or even dropping the unconscious link between black skin and immorality. If the Obama presidency has a long-term prejudice-reducing effect, I think this is a (not “the”) likely reason why.
Some blacks, including a number of black political leaders, have expressed disappointment in Obama because they do not think he has paid sufficient attention to the interest of blacks and has not sufficiently highlighted the concerns of black communities, and programs designed with the interests of blacks specifically in mind. But if the theory of moral dissonance and its effects in reducing prejudice over the longer run is correct, there may be positive returns to the black community from this seeming indifference. It means that whites helped by Obama’s actions cannot resolve dissonance and deny Obama credit for what he has done by seeing his actions as primarily aimed at helping black people, a morally questionable goal in a country that believes its President should strive to aid all people regardless of race, creed, or nationality. If a white, harboring racial bias can attribute actions by Obama that he approves to Obama’s desire to help fellow blacks rather than people like himself, dissonance can be reduced by an explanation consistent with the person’s racial biases and the low moral status he accords blacks. But if such explanations are not readily, the tension between any subconscious bias a person might feel toward blacks and that person’s favorable view of Obama’s actions may be more resolved by changing attitudes toward blacks.
Moral dissonance may, however, be reduced in another way. Attitudinal consistency can be achieved not only by abandoning prejudiced attitudes, but also by changing moral evaluations of otherwise seemingly desirable actions. Thus a person who begins with the implicit belief that blacks are morally inferior to whites but who also believes that universal health insurance is a good idea can resolve any dissonance that accompanies Obama’s perceived embrace of universal health care not only by the elimination or reduction of implicit racial bias but also by deciding that universal health care, at least as Obama envisions it, is not such a good idea after all. For this person Obama’s position on health care will turn into a strike against rather than one for his Presidency.
Moreover, and more dangerously, if moral dissonance theory is correct, implicit racial bias can, as dissonance grows, fuel personal attacks. Combine the implicit beliefs that blacks are inherently morally inferior to whites and the belief that intelligence, dedication to public service and a loving family life are morally virtuous with the perception that Obama both has black skin and is more intelligent, more dedicated to public service and more of a model husband and father than many whites and a drive to resolve these inconsistent attitudes and perceptions is likely to exist. Although one might hope and expect that the resulting moral dissonance would be resolved by a diminution in anti-black prejudice, it could also be resolved by changing perceptions of Obama so that his visible moral virtues are swamped by moral or other closely related failings consistent with internalized prejudice. One would expect people who resolve dissonance in this way to search out “facts” consistent with their implicit biases and to accept as factual questionable or even widely refuted claims and assumptions. I suggest that this is happening, and that the availability of this route to reducing moral dissonance helps explain why so many of the attacks against Obama not only have been characterized by extreme vitriol, ungrounded assertions or obvious untruths (e.g. claims that Obama was born in Kenya, that Obama is a Muslim, that the radical William Ayres wrote his first book) but also why they have had in some circles great staying power despite little or no evidence in their favor and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Most instructive is the claim that William Ayres wrote Obama’s autobiography, Dreams of My Father. This claim gains whatever plausibility it has for some by appealing to the belief that only an educated white man, and not a black man, could write so well. By dominating cognition, hidden prejudice may lead some Americans, without realizing the influence of innate bias, to perceive Obama’s actions as President, and even the man himself, as un-American or even evil. Such tendencies are reinforced by those who knowing better nevertheless seek to take advantage of them by, for example, claiming contrary to fact that “Obama does not love America, that his actions show a commitment to socialism, or that there is a need for him to produce his original birth certificate rather than the certificate Hawaii issues to provide proof of birth to show he was born American.
Hence, although the Obama Presidency may seem like it cannot help but reduce prejudice and improve race relations, because there is more than one way to reduce moral dissonance, this happy outcome is not guaranteed. The fact a President is black does not tell us how moral dissonance will be resolved even when his policies are widely approved, which, of course, is not the case with all of Obama’s or any President’s policies. But Obama may bear a heavier burden than most because some people may disapprove of some of his policies because of who he is when they would approve of the same policies if another had advanced them. In short, we can expect that to the extent moral dissonance arises, not everyone will resolve it the same way.
Where we will be with respect to overt prejudice and implicit bias, at the end of Obama’s presidency will depend in part on where we as a nation started (many white Americans had little implicit bias to begin with) and on how those who feel some dissonance between implicit racial attitudes and the fact of a black President resolve that dissonance. How people are affected and which dissonance reduction tendencies predominate is likely to depend in some measure on Obama’s behavior as President as well as on how attempts to discredit Obama resonate with most people. Thus the right, finding itself unable to deny Obama’s persuasive rhetoric, has tried to label him a radical socialist, an “empty shirt,” a person who hates America, and the like. So far there is little evidence that such attacks have stuck with any voters who did not oppose Obama to begin with and there are, no doubt, people not necessarily committed to Obama who are positively turned off.
There is also the question of how many people feel ambivalence toward Obama or actively oppose him because of their implicit racial biases. Surely a large proportion of those who do not support Obama are not withholding their support, even subconsciously, because of Obama’s race. Presidents Clinton and Carter, for example, were white and many of the same groups and demographics that are most critical of Obama were similarly critical of them. Moreover, at the start of Obama’s presidency when all things seemed possible, he had approval ratings of about 65 percent, which indicates he was initially approved of not just by his most loyal supporters but also by a good number of those who had voted against him. Moreover, even when the state of the economy led an increasing number of people to think he was performing poorly as President, a majority of Americans still approved of him as a person, and Michelle Obama has always been popular with both whites and blacks. These figures may speak more directly than the hateful attacks on Obama to the racial attitudes that predominate in America today.
To the extent there is substance to the theory of moral dissonance I have advanced and to the extent it applies to the Obama presidency in ways I have suggested, it appears that history will view Obama’s presidency as another significant milestone in prejudice reduction and the march of blacks toward full equality in America, for I expect moral dissonance will most likely be resolved by a further weakening of the grip of prejudice (Plant, 2009). The degree to which this happens is, however, likely to depend on how successful Obama’s presidency appears. As President, Obama can control his own speech and behavior, but he cannot control how others speak of him. Nor, despite a strong tendency to credit or blame whoever is President for the nation’s strengths or woes, can a President quickly turn economic disaster on its head or prevent all terrorist attacks from succeeding. Thus, the long term implications of the Obama Presidency for race relations in the United States may in some measure be determined by forces beyond any person’s control.
Lempert, R. (1974) “Toward a Theory of Decriminalization” 3 et. al. 1-8.
Lempert, R. (2011) “Black Behavior and Moral Dissonance: Missing Mechanisms in Theorizing the Obama Effect” pp. 263-65 in The Obamas and a (Post) Racial America?, G.S. Parks and M.W. Hughey (eds) Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York City.
Plant, E.A., Devine, P.G., Cox, W.T., Columb, C.,Goplen, J. & Peruche, G.M. (2009) The Obama Effect” Decreasing Implicit Prejudice and Stereotyping, 45 Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 961-64.
Bio: Richard O. Lempert is the Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Michigan, on leave as Division Director for the Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. Professor Lempert is a graduate of Oberlin College, the University of Michigan Law School, and holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Michigan. In 2000, Lempert was named founding director of the University's Life Sciences, Values, and Society Program (LSVSP). He continues to direct the program while on leave and travels to Ann Arbor regularly in connection with his LSVSP responsibilities.
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