White Prejudice Before and After Barack Obama's Presidential Campaign

Awarded Scholars:
Diana Mutz, University of Pennsylvania
Seth Goldman, University of Pennsylvania
Project Date:
Nov 2010
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Cultural Contact

Levels of intergroup bias, such as white racial prejudice, tend to remain stable from year to year. In many cases intergroup contact can lead to a reduction in bias, but in the United States many communities remain largely segregated, leaving no opportunity for meaningful interaction between people of different races. As a result, racial bias, especially among whites, is persistent in the United States. Within this context, the 2008 presidential campaign provided many U.S. whites with an unprecedented opportunity to become familiar with one particular black individual who defies negative stereotypes—Barack Obama—which led to a unique and significant decline in white racial prejudice towards blacks during the campaign.

Diana Mutz and Seth Goldman (both of University of Pennsylvania) believe that this effect is an example of mediated intergroup contact. Their hypothesis builds on research demonstrating that attitudes about groups are based not only on direct contact, but on the exemplars of that group that readily come to mind, such as politicians or celebrities. They also point to research suggesting that reactions in the brain as a result of viewing someone on television are fundamentally the same as reactions that occur while viewing someone in real life. Together, these findings suggest that viewing a positive exemplar of a group on television could have much the same effect as direct intergroup contact. Although individuals can select the media they view and may often choose not to view programming involving other groups, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign presented a unique opportunity because the media was heavily focused on a positive black exemplar and white viewers often did not opt out of watching coverage of him. In their previous work, Mutz and Goldman used three waves of panel data from the 2008 National Annenberg Election Study to gauge the impact exposure to Obama’s presidential campaign on white in-group favoritism relative to African Americans. Their findings, along with others, suggested that white in-group favoritism did decline significantly during the 2008 campaign, largely due to the fact that mass media was focused on Obama much more heavily than any other African American at that time. These effects were most pronounced among John McCain voters, Republicans, and other Conservatives, suggesting a pattern of influence that exists independently of liking Obama in general.

With support from the Foundation, Mutz and Goldman will be able to re-interview a subsample (2,000 out of the approximately 10,500 original respondents) of white panelists to measure whether their in-group favoritism has declined, leveled off, or reversed in the years since President Obama took office. The investigators will re-ask all of the items on the original survey involving race, and compare these to responses before and during the campaign in order to determine how the Obama campaign and presidency have impacted white racial prejudice. Mutz and Goldman plan to write a book on mediated intergroup contact and President Obama’s impact on white racial prejudice. 



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