A University of Delaware psychology post graduate student, Eric Hehman, who specializes in intergroup relations focuses on prejudice and discrimination, and recently received a national research award for his work on it. The national award was won for his work on what characteristics of a person caused others to remember or forget having seen their face before. He found that people tend to recognize members of their own racial group better than those of different races, though they are better still at recognizing people of any race when they are considered similar to them in some other way, like being students of the same alma mater.
Following from this, Hehman noticed that the criticisms of Obama seemed to go beyond the kinds of criticisms that are commonly heard about presidents’ policies. He particularly noticed that rumors of doubts about Obama’s birth certificate, his religion and allegations that he was corrupting children with a socialist agenda and seemed not strictly based in reality. Hehman said:
I found these controversies fairly strange and wondered if the impetus behind them was rooted in racism, manifesting and rationalizing itself in accusations of Obama’s “un-Americanism”. Some of professor Gaertner’s previous work had dealt with similar issues of unintentional racial biases influencing behavior, often without the person even being aware of their biases. So investigating this with regard to Obama was a natural step.
Hehman’s hypothesis was that whites’ racial prejudices influenced how American they thought Obama was, and affected how they judged his presidential performance. Hehman predicted that whites would be the only group in which such racial prejudice would affect their judgements of performance, and that it would affect only their judgements of the president because he was black. He hypothesized that when whites judged Vice President, Joseph R Biden Jr, or when African Americans judged either Obama or Biden, racial prejudices would have no affect.
The paper describing the study, “Evaluations of Presidential Performance: Race, Prejudice, and Perceptions of Americanism”, appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. UD professor of psychology Samuel Gaertner was Hehman’s adviser and co-author.
Hehman asked about 300 white and black members of the UD community to judge the success in office of either Obama or Biden. He said:
Our predictions were supported. Whites who were racially prejudiced against blacks saw Obama as “less American” and subsequently rated him as performing more poorly as president. Non-prejudiced whites, and both prejudiced and non-prejudiced blacks, did not do so. Additionally and importantly, this relationship was only found with Obama, and not in evaluations of Biden.
Racial prejudice among some white Americans—even though unintentional—influences their views of President Barack Obama’s “Americanism” and how well he is performing in office. Hehman hoped his paper would cause readers to see that:
…even among people who think themselves unprejudiced, unconscious racial prejudices could manifest themselves with important outcomes, such as evaluations of the leader of our country. I hope they examine their opinions and behaviors, both political and otherwise, to ensure they are based on a steady foundation of fact, rather than racial uncomfortability or prejudice.