The Right Coast

January 31, 2006
Republicans Are Evil Racists ....
By Gail Heriot

...or so research reported in the Washington Post suggests. According to the article:

"[A] study ... explored relationships between racial bias and political affiliation by analyzing self-reported beliefs, voting patterns and the results of psychological tests that measure implicit attitudes -- subtle stereotypes people hold about various groups.

"That study found that supporters of President Bush and other conservatives had stronger self-admitted and implicit biases against blacks than liberals did.

"For their study, Brian Nosek, Mahzarin Banaji and social psychologist Erik Thompson culled self-acknowledged views about blacks from nearly 130,000 whites, who volunteered online to participate in a widely used test of racial bias that measures the speed of people's associations between black or white faces and positive or negative words. The researchers examined correlations between explicit and implicit attitudes and voting behavior in all 435 congressional districts.

"The analysis found that substantial majorities of Americans, liberals and conservatives, found it more difficult to associate black faces with positive concepts than white faces -- evidence of implicit bias. But districts that registered higher levels of bias systematically produced more votes for Bush."

"Obviously, such research does not speak at all to the question of the prejudice level of the president," said Banaji, "but it does show that George W. Bush is appealing as a leader to those Americans who harbor greater anti-black prejudice."

As far as I have been able to determine, the study itself has not yet been published. (Don't you love it when newspapers jump the gun and report on studies that are not yet published? It makes it so much easier to write the story, because the writer needn't bother with seeking comment from those who might be skeptical of the study's methodology. How can anyone comment negatively on methodology if no one knows what methodology the study employed?)

I am just guessing here, because I don't have the study in hand, but here are some scattered thoughts:

1. The test used was one of these so-called "Implicit Association Tests" that are popular as internet parlor games these days. I cannot be sure, but I strongly suspect that the test reported on is Banaji & Nosek's "Race IAT" found here. Try it or try one of the other IATs on the web site. They're fun. I just took the Race IAT, and it told me that "[t]he data suggest" that I have "a strong automatic preference for Blacks compared to Whites." And yet many people regard me as a conservative. Go figure.

2. The test doesn't actually ask the test taker whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat or whether he is she supported or opposed George W. Bush. For all we know, it was only Democrats (or only Republicans) who took the test. The test does ask where the test taker rates himself or herself on a six-point scale of liberal to conservative. Note that six is an even number that makes it impossible for the test taker to register himself as a true moderate.

One important thing to note, however, is that all the test takers are volunteers, most of whom probably happened upon the test while surfing the net. This is highly unscientific as a method of comparing one population (conservatives) against another (liberals). At best, you have a comparison between conservatives who surf the net with lots of spare time on their hands and liberals who surf the net with lots of spare time on their hands. They may or may not be representative of the conservatives and liberals generally.

3. All I know about this test is that it measures how quickly and accurately you can sort through a series of pleasant and unpleasant words and black and white faces. It is not clear to me why this is thought to be an accurate gauge of racial bias. But without the paper to analyze, I suppose mine is not to reason why; mine is just to allow the Washington Post to write about whatever it wants to in peace.

I asked my friend Hal Pashler, a professor of psychology at UCSD, and he told me that IAD tests are very controversial and referred me to some the skeptical literature. See Brendl, Messner & Markman, How Do Indirect Measures of Evaluation Work? Evaluating the Inference of Prejudice in the Implicit Association Test, 81 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 760 (2001); Rothermund & Wentura, Underlying Processes in the Implicit Association Test: Dissociating Salience from Association, 133 Journal of Experimental Psychology-General 139 (2004). I will be reading through the articles soon. Hal also referred me to Hart Blanton, whom he says has amassed quite a lot of evidence that IATs purporting to measure racial bias do not in fact do so. I haven't yet read any of these articles, but you can ...

5. Oddly, the authors test only whites in their study. This biases the study. A very large portion (about half) of the Democratic party is now non-white, and the less-well-educated members of the Democratic party are disproportionately non-white, while the less-well-educated members of the Republican party tend to be white. I've been told that both blacks and Hispanics tend to rank very high on measure of racial and ethnic bias. Hispanics, for example, have been found to rank higher than any other American group in anti-Semitism. If non-whites had been included in the study, it might have shown that self-identified liberals are more racially biased than self-identified conservatives.

6. All of this reminds me of the laughable "Jost study" released back in 2004 and demolished by Northwestern's Jim Lindgren. Jost et al. were of the opinion that conservatives are mean, crazy, and unhappy. Time will tell whether this study will get demolished too. So far, it doesn't look good for Banaji & Nosek.

I look forward to reading the study. I'll report back after I do.