October 16, 2008

Talk Examines Race, Gender Bias in Election

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Prof. Jeff Rachlinski, law, and Greg Parks, law ’08, discussed the role of unconscious race and gender biases in the presidential race yesterday in Sage Chapel. Such implicit biases affect the voting process, they said.
“Although some Americans certainly are explicitly biased when it comes to race and gender, such individuals constitute a very small percentage of voters and it is our view that implicit or unconscious bias is the far bigger problem,” Rachlinski said.
Rachlinski explained that there are two types of voting — rationally and intuitively. “Whereas rational voting seems to override unconscious bias, intuitive voting is usually in line with it,” he said.
As an example of a political manifestation of unconscious bias, Parks referenced a study that determined that most white Americans find it easier to associate Hillary Clinton, or even Tony Blair, with patriotic imagery such as the American flag than to associate Barack Obama with such images.
Rachlinski pointed to a “growing body of evidence” showing that many adult Americans who perceive themselves to be egalitarian in terms of race and gender are in fact unconsciously biased.
The potential effect of such unconscious bias on voting behavior is clear.
In terms of the political spectrum, Parks said, “One thing that we know is that political conservatives tend to harbor stronger unconscious anti-black bias.”
Parks added that unconscious bias might manifest itself through changes in the relative importance of the criteria Americans use to judge the merits of a candidate. He cited the Republican emphasis on the inexperience of Obama as an example of this phenomena.
Parks also explained that unconscious bias likely played a substantial role in the Democratic primaries, during which older, less educated and poorer voters tended to be more unconsciously biased and to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“It appears that unconscious racial bias at least partially checks unconscious gender bias,” Parks said.
Parks asserted that unconscious racial and gender bias affect the polling process because whites often say that they will vote for a black candidate and then do otherwise, and many males say that they will vote for a female candidate but do not actually do so.
Rachlinski outlined the social-psychological research relevant to the 2008 presidential election.
He defined unconscious bias as “the kind of biases or habits of mind that people carry around without explicit access to.”
According to Rachlinski, “80 percent of white adults find it much easier to associate white faces with positive imagery than to associate black faces with such imagery.” He explained that in such unconsciously biased individuals, black faces seem to excite the amygdala, an area of the brain governing the fear response.
Rachlinski said that a similar response is involved in job interviews, when whites who perceive themselves as not racist treat black applicants differently by maintaining less eye contact, using more negative body language and unconsciously giving them lower ratings for “personal warmth” and other factors.
He also said that there are similar studies revealing unconscious gender bias.
When asked about the sources of unconscious bias during the question and answer session following the talk, Parks and Rachlinski explained that it probably arises largely from representations of race and gender in various forms of media.
The lecture attracted a substantial audience and seemed to be well-received.
Ileana Betancourt ’12 said, “I really enjoyed the lecture … It gave me a lot to think about in terms of the things that are running through the head of the average American voter.”
The presentation was based on a paper coauthored by Rachlinski and Parks. It was published in the Hastings Women’s Law Journal.
The talk was part of the Sage Wednesdays series, which is sponsored by the Cornell United Religious Work and the Department of Music. The Africana Studies and Research Center also sponsored this week’s lecture.