© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Study Explores Links Between Politics And Racial Bias


There's a new study about politics and racial bias. It uses the Tea Party to explore how much racial identity and attitudes towards minorities determine political leanings. NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has been looking at the study and joins us now Hey, Shankar.


SHAPIRO: And also from NPR's Code Switch team Gene Demby is here to talk with us about some of the larger themes this research brings up. Hey, Gene.


SHAPIRO: So, Shankar, let's start with you. Like any political movement, the Tea Party is big and encompasses a range of ideologies. Many people who sympathize with this group are motivated by a desire for low taxes or less government regulation. How does this study bring race into the conversation?

VEDANTAM: So they first divided volunteers into two groups. One was shown a picture of President Obama. The second was shown a picture of Obama where his skin was artificially made to look darker than it actually is.

Now, since these groups were created at random, they ought to be no difference between them in terms of the way they think about politics. But the researchers found that more whites in the group shown the picture of Obama with a darkened skin tone supported the Tea Party. Here's Stanford sociologist Robb Willer.

ROBB WILLER: White Americans who saw the darkened picture of Barack Obama where his identity as a nonwhite American has been made more prominent, more salient to them were more likely to report that they supported the Tea Party.

SHAPIRO: So interesting. And before we talk about what that means, they went on and did a second experiment that adds more to our understanding of this. What was the second experiment?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So in another part of the experiment, Willer and his co-authors provided volunteers with information. In one case, they suggest that demographic changes are happening very rapidly in America. In another case, they suggest these demographic changes are happening relatively slowly. The researchers find that whites who got the feeling that demographic changes were happening quickly were more likely to say they support the Tea Party than whites who think the change is happening slowly.

Willer and his colleagues think that some whites experience a feeling of anxiety and threat when confronted by these changing racial demographics. And that this sense of anxiety and threat might prompt them to be drawn to the Tea Party.

SHAPIRO: Now, the Tea Party is not a huge force in the 2016 election, but a lot of the themes you're talking about in this experiment are very relevant to this campaign. And that's where I want to bring in Gene Demby from our Code Switch team. Gene, how do the themes of these experiments tie into the reporting you've been doing on this moment in American politics?

DEMBY: Yeah. We've done a few stories on whiteness in our current political moment. Whiteness is a thing that is becoming explicit in people's understanding of themselves as white. So it sort of makes sense that here's this guy who's the president of the United States. He's incredibly prominent.

For the first time in the history of the country, he is not a white person. He's sort of the avatar of this demographic change. And so he animates and activates a lot of anxieties around whiteness becoming explicit.

SHAPIRO: Except why should demographic change inevitably prompt anxiety?

VEDANTAM: I think that's the interesting question, Ari. And in fact, in another experiment that Willer and his colleagues conducted, they find that when you tell whites that blacks and Latinos are closing the income gap with whites, more whites are likely to support the Tea Party. So some whites perceive themselves as being in a zero-sum game with members of some minority groups.

DEMBY: I find that fascinating only because I guess a lot of people even people who will not explicitly say that this is a zero-sum game understand on some subtextual level that what is happening is about the allocation of resources and that those things have always been sort of divvied up by race.

SHAPIRO: Shankar, you've been looking into why there might be a disparity between people who say they are motivated by libertarian issues such as taxes or regulations and the research showing that race actually plays a role as well. Why do you think this disconnect exists?

VEDANTAM: Well, there are really multiple possibilities, Ari. One is that people might not be telling surveyors what they actually think when it comes to race. But there's another possibility which is that people don't fully understand their own motivations. Here's how Willer put it.

WILLER: Not only is it socially unacceptable to report racial prejudice if you have it, but it may be even unacceptable to report it or admit it to yourself.

VEDANTAM: It might be that people are being entirely sincere when they say that race has nothing to do with the political choices they're making. What the research is pointing to is that without their awareness, it might be playing a factor.

DEMBY: I mean, it makes sense. This has really fascinated me. I mean, it makes sense that especially because we know how people identify politically. The Republican Party at this point is almost entirely white - I think it's like around 90 percent white - that anything that is sort of supported by things on the right gets coded as white. And any ideas that are supported by people on the left is coded as part of this like march of multiculturalism. So it makes sense that if the Republican Party or even just the right broadly were to align itself with an idea that that would become implicitly about white people.

SHAPIRO: Gene, it seems as though in this presidential election things that maybe used to be dog whistles or subtle cues have become more explicit...

DEMBY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Whether we are talking about a wall with Mexico or limiting Muslim immigration. If we have evidence that people are subliminally motivated by race regardless, is there any advantage to having the conversation openly rather than pretending that race doesn't influence us?

DEMBY: Well, there could be social consequences for you to saying it in public to other people. Donald Trump sort of gets to exist outside of that. And I think that's one of the reasons that people have gravitated towards him is because he can say the things they can't say.

SHAPIRO: That's Gene Demby from our Code Switch podcast and Shankar Vedantam from our Hidden Brain podcast, which explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. Thanks to both of you.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Ari.

DEMBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.