October 30, 2008

Obama (and Indians) less American?

What?  Me Biased?For the last year and a half, a team of psychology professors has been conducting remarkable experiments on how Americans view Barack Obama through the prism of race.

The scholars used a common research technique, the implicit association test, to measure whether people regarded Mr. Obama and other candidates as more foreign or more American. They found that research subjects—particularly when primed to think of Mr. Obama as a black candidate—subconsciously considered him less American than either Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

Indeed, the study found that the research subjects—Californian college students, many of them Democrats supportive of Mr. Obama—unconsciously perceived him as less American even than the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It’s not that any of them actually believed Mr. Obama to be foreign. But the implicit association test measured the way the unconscious mind works, and in following instructions to sort images rapidly, the mind balked at accepting a black candidate as fully American. This result mattered: The more difficulty a person had in classifying Mr. Obama as American, the less likely that person was to support Mr. Obama.
And:“To me, this study really reveals this gap between our minds and our ideals,” said Thierry Devos, a professor at San Diego State University who conducted the research on Mr. Obama, along with Debbie Ma of the University of Chicago. “Equality is very much linked to ideas of American identity, but it’s hard to live up to these ideas. Even somebody like Barack Obama, who may be about to become president—we have a hard time seeing him as American.”

A flood of recent research has shown that most Americans, including Latinos and Asian-Americans, associate the idea of “American” with white skin. One study found that although people realize that Lucy Liu is American and that Kate Winslet is British, their minds automatically process an Asian face as foreign and a white face as American—hence this title in an academic journal: “Is Kate Winslet More American Than Lucy Liu?”

One might argue that Mr. Obama registers as foreign in our minds because he does have overseas family connections, such as his father’s Kenyan ancestry. But similar experiments have found the same outcome with famous African-American sports figures.
Comment:  It would be fascinating to do this study with other famous Americans. Or with other Americans, period.

I'm not sure whom we'd consider the least American: blacks, Latinos, or Asians. Obviously Arab Americans would score extremely low. I'm guessing Indians would score similar to Latinos--perhaps somewhere in the middle.

Just imagine that: the First Americans considered less American than the Johnny-come-lately, wannabe Americans from Europe. It boggles the mind. Yet it's another way of explaining the anti-Indian racism I've addressed before. Indians are less conventional, less Christian, less American. They're stranger, more exotic, more otherworldly. So we can't imagine them holding jobs like doctor or lawyer and we believe they must be dead and gone.

For more on the subject, see "Real America" = White? and The 2008 Presidential Campaign.

Below:  Is Kate Winslet more American than Lois Red Elk?


Melvin Martin said...

A lot of non-Indians find it hard to believe that I actually served in the "white man's army" during the Vietnam-era, as though my being Indian is somehow "anti-American" since Indians have been involved in a series of brutal conflicts with the U.S. - hence, Indians are not "fully American" due to this perceived enemy-combatant status in the minds of many non-Indians, even today.

dmarks said...

Compared to Native Americans, perhaps any non-Native, from Obama to Winslet, is just slightly less "American".