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US elections

Obama's skin looks different in GOP ads

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new study shows that negative ads targeting President Obama in 2008 depicted him with very dark skin, and that these images would have appealed to some viewers’ racial biases.

The finding reinforces charges that some Republican politicians seek to win votes by implying support for racist views and ethnic hierarchies, without voicing those prejudices explicitly. The purported tactic is often called “dog-whistle politics” — just as only canines can hear a dog whistle, only prejudiced voters are aware of the racist connotations of a politician’s statement, according to the theory.

That debate has been prominent in the 2016 campaign, primarily targeting Donald Trump, but it has existed in almost every recent presidential election. To hear their opponents tell it, when Republican politicians say they oppose a generous welfare system, they really mean black beneficiaries are lazy. If they endorse strict immigration enforcement, they really mean that Latinos are criminals, critics say.

A study published online this month in Public Opinion Quarterly provides new evidence that one GOP campaign — intentionally or not — has aired advertisements that exacerbate viewers’ racial biases.

Analyzing 126 advertisements from the presidential campaign in 2008, the authors first digitally measured the darkness of the two nominees’ skin in each spot, then sorted the ads into categories based on themes. President Barack Obama and his opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., looked very different in various advertisements depending on how the footage was edited and produced.

That was particularly the case in negative advertisements, in which each campaign manipulated the images of its opponent to shadow or wash out his face for dramatic effect.

Interestingly, though, when McCain’s campaign aired spots that connected Obama with alleged criminal activity by liberal groups, the producers almost always used images that made Obama’s skin appear very dark.

Eighty-six percent of these ads contained an image of the president in which the his skin tone was in the darkest quartile of all ads studied.

Likewise, as the election approached, images of Obama in spots aired by McCain’s campaign became gradually darker.

Images of McCain campaign’s own candidate, meanwhile, became somewhat lighter.

Whether this was a conscious strategy on the part of McCain’s campaign is impossible to say. The Washington Post contacted the Republican National Committee and McCain’s Senate office. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Yet a large body of evidence shows that racial prejudices are stronger against African-Americans with darker skin. For example, jurors are more likely to sentence to death black defendants with stereotypically African facial features, even when accounting for the severity of the crime.

The authors of this study — Solomon Messing of the Pew Research Center; Maria Jabon, a software engineer who works for LinkedIn; and Ethan Plaut, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University — confirmed that darker images of Obama did indeed affect the way viewers perceived him.

The researchers showed subjects manipulated images of Obama and then asked them to play a game resembling a crossword puzzle. The subjects had to fill in blanks, such as “C R _ _ _.” One respondent might write “C R O W D,” while another might write “C R I M E.” Given the letters “L A _ _,” a respondent could write “L A Z Y.”

Those who saw the image of Obama with light skin gave that word or another anti-black stereotype as a response 33 percent of the time. Among those who saw the darkened image, the figure was 45 percent, showing that they were more likely to have those negative stereotypes on their minds after seeing the photograph.

© 2015, The Washington Post

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Although Hilary’s campaign did it at least once in the 2008 primaries darken Obama and stretch the aspect ratio of the image to make his nose wider, the study is about the more extensive and systematic pattern of blackening of the skin tone of Obama in the McCain campaign ads strategy—hence the title. The fact that the Hilary Clinton campaign resorted to this shows that Hilary can be considered more of a neoconservative than a liberal based on her hawkishness, present campaign rhetoric and nominal party affiliation notwithstanding.

The authors of the study step very lightly. Unbelievably the words “racist” and “racism” do not appear in the study. Instead we get what has to be the latest euphemism for racism, “Bias in the Flesh,” which is the study’s title. “Bias” means prejudice, but more with a connotation of unfairness. Bias is certainly part of anti-black racism, but the word certainly seems to sugar-coat the effects of deeper virulence of contemporary racism across the U.S. The authors’ overcautious word play does them no credit. I am reminded of the euphemistic language from Pentagon wordsmiths in the Vietnam-era’s “terminate with extreme prejudice,” which meant being aggressively murdered by by a Green Beret assassin.

Cognitive neuroscience shows that among whites, the amygdala (fear-response conditioning part of brain), activates more in response to images of darker-skinned blacks than lighter-skinned blacks or whites. Apparently this is important information for campaign strategists. The authors of the study say that “bias”(racist) intent cannot be proved and that the darkening might be accidental. Does anyone think that this might actually be true? Given the generalized and deeply embedded structural and personal racism in the U.S., it’s hard to believe anyone would blame skin tone darkening in a campaign ad on accidental color shifts in the color palette when images are uploaded. Part of the study showed that McCain actually got whiter in the ads, so that if there was a technical cause of changing skin tones to images uploaded to the web, it does not explain a whiter McCain and darker Obama.

The second part of the study shows that not only was Obama’s skin darkened to associate him with stereotypically racist views, but that this must have been an intentional vote-getting strategy that works to provoke reactions of conservatives and their bigger amygdala/fear-driven brains. Conservative brain patterning is easily associated with Republicans in general, but also with conservative/racist elements in the Democratic Party.

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Steven Williams

This is a perfect example of why people should actually READ THE STUDY before publishing an article from a list of ‘talking points’. Considering ads from BOTH parties were shown to be doing this and the FIRST EXAMPLE against Obama was the Hillary Clinton campaign, no idea where you can come up with such a misleading headline…

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