Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Voting Booth and Beyond: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Racial Attitudes and Behavior in the Obama Era

Ambiguity and Ambivalence in the Voting Booth and Beyond: A Social-Psychological Perspective on Racial Attitudes and Behavior in the Obama Era

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
Volume 6, Issue 01, March 2009
pages 71-82
DOI: 10.1017/S1742058X09090067

Destiny Peery
Department of Psychology
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Galen V. Bodenhausen, Lawyer Taylor Professor of Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

The issue of race has followed Barack Obama since he emerged on the national political scene, continuing unabated throughout his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Although the issue of race is not always explicitly acknowledged or discussed by Obama himself, the implications of his successful candidacy for U.S. politics and the ways people in the United States think about race more generally have been of great interest to media pundits, social scientists, and laypersons alike. Race has been considered a substantial barrier to the electoral success of previous non-White political candidates; therefore Obama’s success requires reconsideration of how race can be expected to influence political outcomes in the future. In addition, his biracial identity also raises questions about how his role as a prominent cultural figure will affect existing racial categories in the United States. A review of social psychological evidence highlights the importance of understanding the ambivalence that characterizes contemporary racial attitudes, as well as the ways in which definitions of race and racial categories may be changing, in order to understand the impact that Obama could have on the future of racial politics. We conclude that Obama’s victory represents a large step in the direction of increasingly positive racial attitudes and more sophisticated public conceptualizations of race, but steady progress in the coming years is not guaranteed. We consider some of the opportunities and obstacles that may affect the trajectory of future gains in the struggle for racial equality in the Obama era.


President Obama considers himself a Black man with mixed racial heritage. His mother was a White Kansan, his father was Kenyan. Obama is now the president of the United States and the first person of color elected to the highest office in a nation previously led exclusively by White men. Obama’s electoral success has rightfully been regarded as an indication of important progress in the struggle for racial equality. Nevertheless, Obama’s success may raise more questions than it answers about the role of race in the United States. When Obama emerged on the national political scene and an entry into the 2008 presidential race became a possibility, the issue of race followed him. A full year before announcing his candidacy for president, but long after the rumblings of his possible candidacy began, pollsters were already asking people about Obama’s race (White 2006). What did they think his race was? Did it matter that he had a White mother? The media’s fascination with Obama’s racial identity reflects the historical and continued salience of race as a social category and the importance racial issues have acquired in U.S. politics.

Here we explore the implications of recent social psychological research on racial attitudes and behavior for understanding the politics of race in the Obama era. We begin with a brief review of evidence regarding the ambivalence underlying racial attitudes and discuss in particular the complex structure that is likely to characterize many White voters’ racial attitudes. As we will show, there is an ample empirical basis for assuming that the right question about racial discrimination is not whether it still exists, but when and how it exists. Next, we consider the important and intriguing question of how our understanding of racial bias is complicated when multiracial people, such as Obama, enter the picture. We consider whether such individuals are better positioned to avoid discrimination by potentially defying simplistic, habitual racial classifications. Finally, we consider the implications of these issues for understanding the changing landscape of race in U.S. politics and U.S. life…

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