Politics, Implicit Bias & Skin Color


Bias in the Flesh

Skin Complexion and Stereotype Consistency in Political Campaigns

— A study published online in Public Opinion Quarterly and worthwhile to read in full.

NB: Anything not noted as coming from a different source derives from this study. It’s “the study” I’ll reference more than I probably should.


It’s colorism, baby.

Really? More? OK:

I’m assuming anyone who trips over this blog will know studies have been done ad nauseam with similar results:

Whether you are testing black people, white people, babies or grown-ups, avowed white supremacists or the most liberal of “I don’t see color” hacks, darker skin continually gets connected to “bad” stereotypes. Conversely, the more “white” a black person looks, the more “good” qualities are assumed out of the box – before anyone knows anything about this person. It’s known as “Colorism.” What is Colorism?

Phenotypic features associated with the social categorization of racial groups have been strongly linked to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Notably, individuals perceived to possess higher levels of Afrocentric features (e.g., dark skin, full lips, wide nose, coarse hair) have been subject to increased negative stereotyping (e.g., alleging heightened levels of aggression; see Blair, Chapleau, & Judd, 2005), leading to real-world repercussions, such as receiving longer prison sentences for crimes equated for severity and priors (Blair, Judd, & Chapleau, 2004;Viglione, Hannon, & DeFina, 2011).

From When an “Educated” Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye: Evidence for a Skin Tone Memory Bias

So, there is consistently strong and ever-growing evidence linking skin complexion among the black population to negative stereotypes and corresponding real-world outcomes. The study referenced in the title extends these findings to political ad campaigns.

It’s no secret that Photoshop is used all over the media, but when black candidates are involved and political attitudes/biases get tossed into a 30-second ad, skin complexion can be easily manipulated in ways that people watching don’t notice or detect. There was a HUGE debate about this during the 2008 primary between President Obama & Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Whether it was intentional or not, some people saw a darker Obama than others, and it all depended on the source. Original debate here and Factcheck does a nice job of cleaning up that particular charge.

Intentional or not, the authors of the article we’re concerned with did a study on whether or not people noticed the differences in skin-tone or the darker images overall, and it seems it’s very hard for people to detect and worse: even small changes in darkness change the perception of the person watching about the person in the political ad.

Rather than relying on various YouTube clips, the researchers created a method to change the darkness of President Obama’s skin by small increments, measure how dark a candidate appears in an image, then examined how complexion varied with ad content during the 2008 presidential election campaign.

Their next study was an experiment conducted to document how those darker images might activate stereotypes, and what happened there?

….our subtle darkness manipulation is sufficient to activate the most negative stereotypes about Blacks—even when the candidate is as famous and counter-stereotypical as Barack Obama.

So even when people KNOW the black person – that he’s not, say, out robbing liquor stores in between stints selling crack to toddlers – that he’s the President of the United States, people still react with all the loaded stereotypes about black people when shown images of Barack Obama, and this is the real point: It’s all Barack Obama. It’s all the same image. The only change is the *manipulated difference* in the darkness of his skin, and even then, people think worse things about him when shown a darker Barack Obama and less negatively when shown a lighter Barack Obama. Freakishly terrifying in the implications here.

How does this bode for ANY black candidate? It seems pretty bleak to me.

But just to be sure, these researchers weren’t done. They looked for “Further evidence of an evaluative penalty for darker skin” with one more study that used actual political ads and when they were played in the campaign all while taking in the differences or shades of darkness in President Obama’s skin:

This final study looks at the advertising content itself. comes from an observational study measuring affective responses to depictions of Obama with varying skin complexion… This study demonstrates that darker images are used in a way that complements ad content, and shows that doing so can negatively affect how individuals evaluate candidates and think about politics.

So basically, Barack Obama got darker and darker the closer to election day we came. And that darkness in the ads changed people’s evaluations of him regarding things as esoteric as trustworthy and “presidential” and all the other things we look for in our elected officials, or we used to, until Trump…

Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this study used the one black politician who is pretty universally recognizable, so imagine how this impacts “regular people” or even regular political candidates and elected office holders on a daily basis.

I find implicit bias heartbreaking for a lot of reasons, but when it’s intentionally used for political gain, it’s just beyond sickening. I suppose we can only be thankful for one thing: at least Barack Obama gets a break from 2016, given what promises to be the lowest of election cycle antics ever.



Scientists change Obama’s skin color to make white people support conservative politics — theGrio

In a paper Robb Willer and colleagues recently published, they put forth the possibility that racial bias may be at least in part what is drawing people to conservative movements like the Tea Party. One thing Willer and team did in their study was alter photos of Obama to make his skin look lighter in…

via Scientists change Obama’s skin color to make white people support conservative politics — theGrio

“Black on Black Crime” Decoded

I’m trying to dig up REAL research on the poor white areas of Baltimore right now. It seems, like many other things, it’s hard to come by honest information rather than opinion on the safety of living in areas like Carrollton Ridge than it is about pretty much any predominantly black neighborhood.

I lived in West Baltimore for years, in what is apparently called Penn North (I didn’t know that while I lived there — those were just the closest streets,) a quick to that same corner where the police held a stand-off with protestors and the whole world turned its eye for a few days earlier this year. I knew my neighbors, and I always felt pretty safe because of that. If anything went down, I knew I was welcome to seek refuge (either from family members or street violence.)

White people, especially on certain news channels or web corners, love to talk about black on black crime, as if that completely cancels out the systemic racism, implicit bias, police brutality and other real issues concerning the African-American Community.

Nonetheless, there is an issue of crime in any poor and oppressed community, and LBS Baltimore is not sitting on their hands when it comes to this or many other issues concerning the Black community. They have (linked on my first post as well) a Dialogue series that is currently focused on “Black on Black Crime” Decoded.

Please use their website to view this wonderful series. Currently there are three parts, all viewable via the LBS site with videos from YouTube. I’d rather you see all they have to offer than plopping their videos here without asking, and I think there is lots of other important stuff to see there, so for now, please take the time to watch and read the Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle Baltimore‘s series on “Black on Black Crime” Decoded.

This blog is an act of desperation…I hope it doesn’t do any damage

I’ll admit, I’m not good at blogging or blogging tools, but here I am. I’m not a writer. I’m nothing special. My voice is not different from many other, clearer voices, and I don’t intend to spend a ton of time editing or even thinking. This is a journal essentially, but I’m putting it on the web because maybe someone out there wants to call me on something I think/type or maybe I will need a public shaming to really get certain things. Maybe others will join me and we can figure some things out. I’m desperate. This blog is an act of desperation.

I’d like to add my white face to the many-faceted chorus of others who have had enough of this nonsense. What do I mean by “nonsense?” I mean white people/groups/news channels/politicians who insist racism is over, or that dead black people are just some sort of cover-up for black crime (discussion of that,) or the sickening sight of people marching around with their inane Battle Flags. (I’d include a link, but the current top links are “show your confederate pride” types. Not gonna add to the clickbait.)

While I’m admitting things, I’ll add — I fail sometimes/probably often at being a white “anti-racist”. I’m not even really sure that’s a real thing. Everyone has implicit bias, including me. I try to check my white privilege as constantly as possible. “Is that reasonable?”, I ask myself. Well, sure, because I didn’t say 24/7/365. And therein lies the issue.

I am white. Despite certain people I shall not list (maybe another day we’ll take on cultural appropriation,) that is a fact that cannot change. I was raised in this skin, so my perspective is different. I’m sitting in my living room pretty certain that I can go out and not be shot by the police, even if I committed a crime. My neighborhood is pretty safe. My food store is within a short enough distance and has fresh veggies and fruit. I got a good education. I have access to resources, and while I’ve experienced racism, it was never about me but rather about the people I was with.

Facts are important, but so is action. Writing a bunch of blog posts probably isn’t going to change a thing, since the internet (like the news, like society in general) seems to be a self-selecting sort of place. And I have said to myself for years that I don’t believe in “facebook activism” or “twitter activism.” Hitting “retweet” is not activism, and it’s hardly even action. But it can’t hurt, so I do it. “It doesn’t fix anything”, I think every time I do it, and that’s how I’m feeling about this blog too. But here I am, in desperation, in confusion, in a state of near panic, thinking “I hope it doesn’t hurt.”

As a Baltimorean there are a lot of things I can do, and this is where I intend to just keep a bunch of words to remind myself to do them. I’m going to keep trying and doing. I’m going to show up, and I’m going to follow Black activists doing whatever they need. I keep a little journal in my phone regarding moments of white privilege. I’m sure I miss a lot. I’d love to ask a black friend to help me, but that act in itself seems pretty selfishly privileged.

One thing I’d love to do is start a bunch of small groups to talk about just this issue. A mixed group where honesty is valued above all — where black people, like Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, or a similar group could come and be safe calling out white people about our shit.

In reality, white people should start by talking to other white people. I haven’t spoken to my mother in a long while for many reasons, but one of the biggest things that’s always stood between us is the fact that she is a racist and thinks she isn’t (see Fox News.) I asked her to stop saying things (like “just use your uncle’s Mexicans” to move house,) decades and decades ago, later I told her to stop it, then I threatened to cut her off, and finally I did.

But she’s still a racist who thinks she isn’t because she somehow knows some black people and may have eaten with them or something. Do I go back to her and listen to her and try again, or do I simply cut her off forever? I doubt my nearly 80 year old mother will ever really get it, but should I keep trying until she dies or gets it? She’s sort of my responsibility, but might my time be better spent talking to more receptive and younger white people? Do I start with the old-ish lady across the hall? She knows she’s a racist and doesn’t seem terribly troubled by it. My sharp criticism brings a slammed door until the next time we bump into each other. And so it goes. I’d move, but I can’t afford to do that right now.

So that’s why I’m typing away: because I’m tired of crying alone. While I can’t stop white supremacy, I can try to do whatever I can to change things while I’m on this earth. I’m sad but I am not going to stay shuttered inside wondering why things don’t change. And with that, I’m pretty much done here for today.

I tried to add a widget to make a list of links, but I can’t see it, so here are a few to start off with: