What's the Big Idea?

Is race a factor in opposition to health reform?

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Back in September, after raucous "tea party" protests over the president's health-care reform plans, Jimmy Carter declared that "an overwhelming portion" of such animosity toward President Obama was "based on the fact that he is a black man."

Carter was roundly rebutted by Republicans as well as the White House, with press secretary Robert Gibbs asserting that Obama "does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin." And after convening a focus group of conservative Republicans, the public opinion research firm Democracy Corps declared race "beside the point" and said it was time for people to "get over" the idea of a racial divide on Obama.

But what if Carter was on to something? According to a recent study by researchers from Stanford and the University of California at Irvine, negative views of the president do appear be correlated with racial bias. The problem with the Democracy Corps study, they say, is that it relied on its subjects to talk candidly about race. "People may fail to report the influence of race on their judgments," the researchers wrote, ". . . because they are unaware of it -- and might not acknowledge it even if they were aware of it."

To better measure people's "implicit" (or unconscious) prejudice, the California researchers asked those in the study to quickly sort stereotypically "black" and "white" words and names (Tyrone and Shaniqua vs. Brett and Jane) into positive and negative categories. They found that individuals displaying above-average levels of racial prejudice on this task were 42.5 percent less likely to have voted for Obama than those with average scores.

The researchers also found a negative correlation between racial prejudice and support for Obama's health-care reform effort. As a further test of this relationship, the researchers divided study participants into two groups and read both groups a health-care reform plan -- but one group was told that the policy was Obama's, while the other group was told that it was Bill Clinton's 1993 plan. Those subjects with higher levels of racial bias were more negative about the plan when it was attributed to Obama.

Finally: a contest that Clinton won't be happy to win.

-- Kate Julian


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