Darker President Obama Pictures Make White People Feel Threatened

By Sheryl Estrada


Seeing an altered photo of President Barack Obama with a darker skin complexion made white people report allegiance to the Tea Party movement, according to a study. The photo was a part of a psychological experiment to demonstrate a causal link between Tea Party support and racial resentment.

Robb Willer, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, is the primary of author of the research paper, “Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support among White Americans,” published online on May 4.

In an interview with DiversityInc, Willer explained why his team researched the underlying motivation and unconscious biases of the Tea Party, which emerged from a movement of conservatives protesting the federal government in 2009. Politicians who supported the movement include former 2016 Republican presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate.

“When we started the project a commonly cited reason for the rise of the Tea Party was this idea that the election of Barack Obama and the rising minority population in the U.S. had, together, threatened white Americans’ sense of their standing in the U.S., and that these individuals saw the Tea Party as a movement to restore that standing,” Willer said. “That’s a pretty controversial idea and we wanted to subject it to rigorous tests.”

Online Experiments

Willer, along with co-authors Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto and Rachel Wetts of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted five survey-based, online experiments between 2011 and 2015 involving 1,329 participants. The analyses in all studies primarily focused on white participants because their hypotheses concern white Americans’ responses to racial threats.

In an experiment to emphasize Obama’s African American heritage, at random, participants were given a celebrity identification test, which included a photo of the president with his skin color either lightened or darkened. Then participants were given a survey regarding political affiliations including the question, “Do you consider yourself a supporter of the Tea Party”

According to the research, of the 255 white participants in the experiment, those shown the photo with a darker skin tone were more likely to say they supported the Tea Party (22 percent), compared to a group shown a lightened photo of Obama (12 percent).

Figure 1. Artificially lightened and darkened photos of President Barack Obama presented to participants in Study 1. Photo is from the report, “Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support among White Americans.”

“I doubt the Tea Party would have been as powerful a force, andmaybe would not have emerged at all, if Obama had not been elected [in 2008],” Willer said.

Regarding the 2008 presidential election campaign, a study found darker images of then Sen. Obama were more frequent in negative ads against him, “especially those linking Obama to crime.”

During times of slavery in the U.S., lighter-skinned African Americans were more likely to work as house slaves and were given preferential treatment by plantation owners and the overseers, while African Americans with darker complexions worked in the fields and were believed to be inferior to those with lighter skin.

Discrimination based on skin color, or colorism, is a legacy of slavery, which lingers within American culture and has resulted in a significance of skin tone within the Black community as well. Author Alice Walker coined the term colorism and addresses it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple.”

Another experiment discussed in “Threats to Racial Status Promote Tea Party Support among White Americans” included economic factors. White participants were told that whites’ average income relative to people of color was either declining “Income Gap Closing” or expanding “Income Gap Expanding.”

Those assigned to the Income Gap Closing condition reported greater support for the Tea Party, an average of 1.45 points on a five-point scale, than did participants assigned to the Income Gap Expanding condition, 1.23.

In a different test, white participants were told the percentage of whites in the U.S. was decreasing, a “Majority Threat.”

Respondents reported support for the Tea Party, 1.62 points, and a high level of racial resentment, 3.94.

The researchers also used the “Majority Threat” scenario in an experiment in which all participants were Tea Party supporters. It found that when the declining portion of whites in America was emphasized, Tea Party support increased.

The fifth study revealed that when aspects of the Tea Party’s platform, including opposition to immigration and welfare, were emphasized, white participants who perceived threats to their racial status reported stronger support than when Libertarian ideals (reduced government spending) were emphasized.

‘Tea Party a Bridge to Trump Candidacy’

Willer, Wetts and Feinbergwrote, “We propose that the [Tea Party’s] positions on racialized issues like the Obama presidency, immigration, and welfare mean that it is perceived as a pro-white, anti-minority movement, making support for the movement attractive to racially-threatened whites motivated to restore the symbolic status of whites in America.”

The authors’ choice of words, “restore the symbolic status of whites in America,” are similar to presumptive Republican presidential candidate Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

“I think this research can tell us a lot about the roots of support for Donald Trump’s candidacy,” Willer said. “It’s shocking to see amajor party candidate receive so much popular support despite a track record of controversial statements about various ethnic groups.

“However, it’s less surprising if you think of the Tea Party as a sort of historical bridge to the Trump candidacy.”

Willer said the party’s platform was not “explicitly prejudiced.” However, he said research shows that it pulled a great deal of its support from the racial resentment of white Americans’ who felt their position in the U.S. was under threat from other ethnic groups.

“Now we find that Trump can push things a little further, for example by loading his criticisms of U.S. immigration policy with more vitriolic language.

“Donald Trump’s candidacy pulls support from much of the same base that the Tea Party did and has. And there is good reason to think that the psychological forces propelling Tea Party support also propel support for Trump’s candidacy.”

Related Story: Trump’s Record of Hate to Date

Willer also said Trump has taken negative rhetoric up a notch.

“Indeed, Trump’s statements probably go further in criticizing minority groups than the Tea Party did.”

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