When given a choice between a photo of a lighter-skinned version of Barack Obama versus a darker-skinned version, most voters who consider themselves Democrats last year selected the lighter version.
That’s what research set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences found after surveying voters before and after the 2008 presidential election.
The survey of nearly 400 voters in Chicago and at Arizona and Florida State universities sought to determine how different people “see the world” and what effect, if any, skin color plays in one’s personal or group politics, says Emily Balcetis, one of the researchers. A focal point was Obama’s position as “racially ambiguous” or biracial.
“We showed participants several different photos of Barack Obama, and asked them to rate how well each photo represented who he really is,” Balcetis says, explaining the research methodology. “Unbeknownst to participants, we altered some of the photos to make the candidate’s skin tone lighter, and some to make the candidate’s skin tone darker, than it was in the original photograph.”
One of the researchers, Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago, discovered that participants whose partisanship was the same as that of the candidate “consistently rated the lightened photographs as more representative of the candidate than the darkened photographs, whereas participants whose partisanship did not match that of the candidate showed the opposite pattern.”
In other words, conservatives tended to see Obama as black, while liberals tended to see him as white. The more people thought lightened photographs reflected Obama, “the more likely they were to report voting for him in the actual election,” Balcetis adds, noting that being part of a group that has the same political values motivates people to see their fellow group members positively. (The study, which included men and women, did not “have enough minority participants to see how the issue played out among nonwhites,” says Balcetis.)
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, well, it probably is. Even the researchers acknowledge that American and Western society’s association with light skin color as good and dark skin color as bad is nothing new.
Certainly, there is no shortage of examples where dark skin versus light skin has been the subject of books, essays, articles, documentaries and even rap music. Renowned psychologist Kenneth Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, explored the issue in the black doll tests during the 1940s. When black children were shown four dolls, identical except for color, the children preferred the white doll over the black ones. In 2005, Kiri Davis conducted a similar test in New York with results similar to the Clarks. Davis created an award-winning video to showcase her work.
Books such as “The Color Complex,” Spike Lee’s film, “School Daze,” and even articles about Michelle Obama’s chocolate skin further explore the prickly issue of skin color that lingers in African-American communities.
Other media-driven moments that some claim were designed to perpetuate negative images of dark skin include photographs of a dark and menacing O.J. Simpson the cover of Time magazine during his infamous murder trial in the 1990s. Last year, Hillary Clinton’s camp was accused of releasing a television ad featuring darkened images of Obama during the presidential primaries.
“I think we’re making real progress toward reducing the amount of overt discrimination and racism, but there are more subtle forms of bias that can still have very meaningful consequences,” Balcetis notes.
“Our findings reinforce the point made by previous researchers that discussion should not only concern how people perceive blacks versus whites, but also how perceptions of blacks or biracial people vary within these groups.”