Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Does President Obama Look "Presidential?" Considering the Problem of Unconscious White Racial Bias in the 2012 Race


Time to get our rhythm back. I hope your holiday was restful. Mine was interesting. I was reminded of the fact that I am a "civilian" and not a bad man (I knew that, but having it reinforced was useful), I saw Men in Black 3 and Bernie (both are good fun, the former had some particularly pleasant surprises), and many comment worthy news items came and went without an intervention because Memorial Day weekend is not generally a time during which folks spend that much time on these Internets.

As such, we are going to do some catching up this week. I have an obligatory comment on the "white working class men who hate Barack Obama" meme, as well as some more begging to do for our collective effort to raise funds in order to buy some slavery artifacts on EBAY (we can do better folks, much better). I have learned one thing from my virgin foray into fund-raising: repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition is how one gets the change out of pockets.

Last week, there was an interesting item in The Wall Street Journal by Andrew Roberts that explored the idea of "looking presidential." What signals to a voter or a public that a given person is the "right" type to be President? Is it height, name, speech patterns, confidence, style, personality, or some combination of all of these traits? Alternatively, does a person begin to look more "presidential" in hindsight, where the longer one holds the office, the more that the public adjusts their expectations of the position to fit him?
What does it mean to "look presidential," and why does it matter? An enormous amount of the media coverage of presidential candidates is focused on whether or not he (or, very rarely, she) "looks presidential." 
Grow up, America! Has the great democratic system of the Republic really come down to choosing leaders not on the basis of what they say, or even the way they say it, but on the way they fill a suit while saying it? 
Looking presidential can be broadly translated to mean being around 6 feet tall, relatively slim and broad-shouldered, and having a full head of preferably pepper-and-salt-colored hair and a ready, winning smile. It isn't being only 5 feet 6 inches tall and slightly balding that makes me want to blaspheme at the TV screen whenever I hear approving talk of Messrs. Romney, Perry and Huntsman "looking presidential." It's because I'm a historian—and where would the United States be if she had always adopted such blatantly look-ist criteria in the past?
And yes, I said "him," as gender is very much a key part of the equation in how authority is assessed in these United States.

I understand Roberts' desire to elevate oneself above such "petty" concerns as race and gender in working through how a person can look "presidential" (or not). However, this is insufficient for a critical examination of such a question as it applies to President Obama. In all, Roberts' choice to ignore race is an example of the white racial frame in action (who needs to talk about race stuff?), and an object lesson in the failure of colorblind politics (we can just pretend that Obama is just like all the other presidents). 

For example Roberts writes:
Yet surprisingly few great American presidents have "looked presidential" (Ronald Reagan and JFK being the obvious exceptions). A much larger and more interesting number looked the part but never made it to the White House. Think about it: John McCain, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson (despite baldness), Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater (very much), and even Al Gore until he opened his mouth—they all could have come from central casting. Even Thomas Dewey might have qualified until he was fatally described as looking like "the little man on the top of the wedding cake".
Ultimately, in his efforts to be race neutral, Roberts ignored one of the most important variables influencing how Barack Obama is assessed by the American people: Obama's race is symbolically potent for voters across the color line. Such an omission is willful--however well intentioned--and not accidental.

It is a given that much of the opposition to Obama is purely partisan. By extension, in the United States, political ideology is in turn influenced by racial attitudes, feelings, sentiments, and anxieties. Some love Obama because he is a person of color; others despise him precisely because of that fact. 

What to do when much of that hostility is rooted in unconscious bias? Can a black man look "presidential" when on a deep social, cultural, and cognitive level many in the public are incapable of seeing a non-white person as being a "real" American? What does this hold for the 2012 election, when Obama now has a record to be assessed against?


They say once you go black you never go Black. Unconscious racial bias may suggest an alternative decision rule: you ain't had it right till you did it White...and once you had black you go running back to White.

6 comments:

Steven Augustine said...

Romney/Clinton 2012!

(because what difference could it possibly fucking make? And, honestly, as a Person of Color, I kinda preferred it when we could blame Old White Guys for Everything)

chaunceydevega said...

@Steve. Those were the good old days, no?

Steven Augustine said...

(wipes tear from eye)

Anonymous said...

Right on, Steve. Because he is black his color neutral (de facto racist, because that is the status quo in Amerika) policies become acceptable to black people. Hey, we even support them.

Steven Augustine said...

"Hey, we even support them."

Especially the Kapo Klass. Give a Striped Pajama of Color enough money to buy a secondhand Lexus and he/she will look the other way faster than you can say "Tyler Daniels Winfrey".

Anonymous said...

A paraquote:

'All that is necessary for the triumph of racism is that a black president do nothing.'