How Black Is Barack?
Well, that depends on how much you like his political views. According to a new study (abstract), a person’s perception of a biracial candidate’s skin tone is determined, at least in part, by partisanship.
Caruso asked 221 students about their political ideologies and then showed them three photos of Obama and three of John McCain. On the grounds that some photos can capture the “true essence” of a politician better than others, the students were asked to rate how well each photo represented each man. But unbeknownst to them, two of each set of pictures had been altered with Photoshop, so that the subject’s skin tone was either lighter or darker.
When it came to McCain, the students’ political leanings had no bearing on their choice of photos. For Obama, it was a different matter – liberal students were more likely to pick the lightened photo as the one that represented him best. Conservative students were more than twice as likely to associate him with the darkened photo. These biases were reflected in the students’ votes. Whether liberal or conservative, the more people associated Obama with the lightened photo, the more they were likely to vote for him.
A week after the election, Caruso caught up with his recruits and confirmed that those who thought the lightened photos represented Obama were actually more likely to have voted for him. Those who linked him to the darkened photo were more likely to have voted for McCain.
The patterns held, even after accounting for students’ attitudes on race (and it holds when the experiment is repeated with an unknown and fictional mixed-race politician).
The basic mechanism would seem to be two-fold: 1) “people tend to view members of their own political group more positively than members of a competing political group” and 2) “the positive associations of white and lightness among some Western cultures.” Thus, people’s thought process goes something like this: Barack Obama agrees with me, he is like me and thus “good”; good equals light-skinned. (Unfortunately, the racial breakdown of the sample is not available, but note that it’s perfectly plausible for a black person to go through the exact same logic listed above.)
So, why does this matter? Pretty simple, really. When you throw this ugly train in reverse — and you assume that making a candidate look darker will make more people feel negatively about him or her — you get some super-ugly politics.
For instance, you get Hillary Clinton’s campaign deliberately darkening images of Barack Obama during the Democratic primaries. A similar thing was done to images of Harold Ford in Tennessee. And then there was the case of Ashwin Madia, whose skin was darkened in an attack ad while he was running in Minnesota’s 3rd congressional district. (Some might even remember when Time magazine darkened O.J. Simpson’s skin for a cover back in the 1990s.)
All of these cases are disputed to one extent or another. Darkening someone’s image — including a white person’s — is a perfectly conventional way to make them look more “sinister.” It’s just built into how we view the world. But when you match that up with deeply held racial biases, it looks like you may just have a powerful (and reprehensible) way to sway people’s opinions with nothing more than a knob-turn in Photoshop.