The conservative publication Human Events recently stirred controversy by posting an image that juxtaposed an elegant and demure Jackie Kennedy with a photo of Michelle Obama cheering at a basketball game. I won’t reproduce it here, but you can link to the BBC’s coverage of the incident if you want. Across the top of the image was emblazoned, “What Happened America?” The implication was straightforward enough, and if you didn’t get it right away, conservative commentators online made it crystal clear: Mrs. Obama is a “boisterous,” mannish black woman who has no right to be in the White House. We’ve come along way since the 1960s and it’s been mostly downhill, evidently.
It doesn’t take an inkblot to bring out people’s latent racist feelings and assumptions.
Psychologists found this out in 1966 when they asked white college students to write captions underneath images of African Americans. The idea was that the students’ reactions–and particularly, their “racial attitudes”–would shift based on whether the image portrayed the black subjects positively or negatively. The responses were troubling, to say the least. The researchers found that, in some cases, the “positive” images actually prompted more hostile responses. An image of a black doctor working with a black patient elicited responses such as “Don’t worry, lots of people have bad breath” and “Yes, I’m afraid you’re black forever.” A black woman with her child at an art museum brought a sneering caption: “And to think, yesterday we were burning Watts.”
The researchers realized that the college students in the study often recoiled when shown images that conflicted with their deeply ingrained prejudice. They called this the “boomerang effect,” but concluded (with a dab of wishful thinking, perhaps) that continued exposure to positive depictions of African Americans and other minorities over time would eventually change attitudes.
They were psychologists, though, not psychics. The vitriolic and abusive treatment of the Obama family over the last six or seven years suggests that the stereotypes of fifty years ago have been more stubborn than the researchers in 1966 might have expected. In 1966 researchers thought a black doctor was the epitome of a positive depiction of an African American, one that might subtly shift the perceptions of white viewers. Perhaps they did not consider presenting their subjects with an image of a black president. Indeed, if anyone could be viewed as a successful family, it is the Obamas–two Ivy League-educated individuals, who are by all accounts loving parents and (to say the least) highly accomplished in their fields of endeavor. Yet we’ve seen the President depicted as a caricature of an African tribesman with a bone in his nose; he’s been accused of achieving success only through affirmative action, since obviously a black man couldn’t become head of the Harvard Law Review on his own merits; while the First Lady has been subject to grotesque comments on her body, her femininity, and her overall comportment as a public figure.
Maybe the psychologists were right about the boomerang effect: some conservatives look at an attractive, successful black family, but all they see are their own shopworn racist caricatures instead. The boomerang continues to boomerang. And perhaps the cognitive dissonance of seeing an African American family elevated to the highest position in the land can help explain an uptick in racial animosity since President Obama took office–a phenomenon that seems subjectively true to this observer, and that statistician Nate Silver recently analyzed through survey data.