There is still much talk about how Barack Obama’s White House win demolished negative stereotypes about blacks. Unfortunately, that’s just wishful thinking.
A new study by a team of researchers from several top universities shows that stereotypes about poverty and crime remain just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceives that those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The surprise was that the negative racial stereotypes also applied to anyone, no matter their color, who was poor and jobless. If, for instance, a white commits a crime, the odds are that the respondents will reclassify that person as black.
The jumbled mental contortions that many go through to dub a white person black solely on the basis of their income and record of past offenses didn’t end there: If a person who was perceived as white was jailed, that person was still perceived to be black even after their release.
The study did more than affirm that race, poverty and crime are firmly linked in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out. That’s not exactly new information, either.
In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit criminal offenses. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise, given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope-peddling gangbangers and drive-by shooters. The bulging numbers of blacks in America’s jails and prisons seem to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in this nation are invariably committed by someone with a young black male face.
And it doesn’t much matter how prominent, wealthy or celebrated a black is. The overkill feeding frenzies surrounding the criminal hijinks of New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, O.J. Simpson and the legions of black athletes, Hollywood personalities and entertainers who behave badly or run afoul of the law only serves to further reinforce the negative image of blacks.
There was, however, a mild surprise in the Penn State study. It found that even when blacks didn’t commit a specific crime, whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African American. University researchers were plainly fascinated by this result. Five years later, they wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway.
By then, Obama’s political ascent was in full bloom. According to polling data, a crushing majority of whites not only said that they would vote for an African American for president, but that color was not a consideration in how they viewed and voted for a candidate.
This appeared to signal a benign sea change in public attitudes on race. It didn’t.
Researchers found that public attitudes on crime and race were unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn’t commit them.
There are two troubling implications in these studies. One is that Obama’s victory was just that — a personal triumph for him. It did not radically remap racial perceptions, let alone end racial stereotyping.
A significant percent of whites voted for him and were passionate about him because they were fed up with George W. Bush’s policies and believed that he would reverse those policies. The vote for him was race-neutral. His victory was a tribute to his personal political organization and savvy, as well as public fear and frustration about Bush.
The second implication is even more troubling. If a large share of the public still views crime and poverty through a narrow racial lens, that public will continue to clamor for lawmakers, police and prosecutors to clean the streets of violent criminals — who are almost always seen as African Americans. This could mean even more gang sweeps, court injunctions, stiff adult prison terms, “three strikes” laws and the indefinite holding of accused teens in juvenile jail detention.
Ironically, Obama inadvertently fed the negative perceptions of blacks.
In several much-publicized talks on the black family, the president-elect blasted black men for being missing in action on the home front and for shirking their family responsibility. It was a well-meaning effort to call attention to the chronic problems of black males and families, but it also gave the impression that black males are dysfunctional. It was a short step from that to the conclusion that these same men are more likely to be involved in crime than whites.
Obama’s win was a double-edged sword. It was, as billed, a profound historic win, but it also fanned the illusion that racial stereotypes are dead. Now we know better.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a syndicated columnist, author, political analyst and social issues commentator.