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.



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