Obama, Racism, and the Implicit Association Test

Are you a closet racist? In 1948, your reaction to the above photo of a white man hugging a black man might have been a measure of that trait.*

Today, however, most people in the USA are better at disguising it, even from themselves. It’s not a charge that can be as easily dismissed as you would think. Your voting record, for example, might not tell you very much. That’s where the Implicit Association Test comes in, as a possible way to know more about your innate tendencies, perhaps even ones about which you are unaware.

Depending on your political orientation and attitude toward the man in the White House, you might have been accused of being either unpatriotic or a racist within this new century: unpatriotic if you opposed President George W. Bush and a racist if you opposed President Obama.  The voices of protest against the War in Iraq were often charged with giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the scary days after 9-11-2001, when all manner of evidence (later disproven) about the presence of WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) in the hands of Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator, were alleged by the folks in charge.

More recently, noisy opposition to President Obama’s initiatives have included accusations that he was not born in the USA, is a secret Muslim, is a closet Communist or at least a Socialist, and so forth. When the expression of these ideas is accompanied by posters telling the President to go back to Africa, and pictures of him in “white face,” it gets pretty hard to think well of the protesters.

Now, I don’t know if there is any psychological instrument that can effectively test your patriotism, but I do know one that might tell you something about whether you have any racist tendencies. Or, to be more precise, a tendency to prefer “white” over “black.” It’s called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), a measurement generated by the friendly social scientists at Harvard. It can be found at: Implicit Association Test. Click on the word “Demonstration.”

There are actually a great many measures on the site, but the one I’m talking about is the one labeled Race IAT: Race (Black-White’) IAT.

This and other similar tests are described in the following background quotation from the site:

The IAT was originally developed as a device for exploring the unconscious roots of thinking and feeling. This web site has been constructed for a different purpose — to offer the IAT to interested individuals as a tool to gain greater awareness about their own unconscious preferences and beliefs.

Many years ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind.

These lines from Dostoyevsky capture two concepts that the IAT helps us examine. First, we might not always be willing to share our private attitudes with others. Second, we may not be aware of some of our own attitudes. Your results on the IAT may include both components of control and awareness.

Now, you are likely to ask yourself whether there is a connection between preferring “white” over “black” and acts of discrimination or racism. You will find the answer to that in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the site. In general, the answer is a “not necessarily” and I’m sure that you will want to read more about the behavioral implications of your “preference.” The site and the various tests and explanations are really quite interesting, so I would encourage you to take a look.

The test just might be informative to you about who you “really” are. If you believe that your opposition, for example, to President Obama is entirely motivated by firmly rooted, color-blind principles, you might find the test results unsettling. No less, however, the left-leaning, Obama-supporting, test-takers who pat themselves on the back for their belief that they are “color blind,” might be surprised by their results. A member of either of these groups might be caught up short by what the “black-white” test suggests about them.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, to quote Dostoyevsky once more, a hostage to “those things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Again, here is where you can: Implicit Association Test.

*The image at the top is a 1948 newspaper photo of Steve Gromek embracing Larry Doby in celebration of a fourth game victory in the World Series. Gromek was the winning pitcher for the Cleveland Indians vs. the Boston Braves. Doby hit the game winning homerun, prompting Gromek’s spontaneous act.

The photo was astonishing for its time. Doby followed Jackie Robinson by less than three months in the 1947 integration of Major League Baseball. The idea of men of two different races cheek-to-cheek offended the most bigoted parts of the white population, some of whom never forgave Gromek. It should also be added that Doby endured the same racism and brutality as Jackie Robinson, but received less credit for it as the second man to integrate baseball while Robinson was the first. The fact that Robinson played for the Brooklyn (New York) Dodgers and therefore received much more media coverage probably also contributed to the reduced attention to Doby’s extraordinary courage and athletic accomplishments. Doby was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

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