Friday, 20 February 2009

Why Barack Obama will transform race relations

Last night, a few years after everyone else, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Somebody shamed me into reading it. I am so glad I did. The book, to re-cap for everyone else in the world who has read it, is about how our adaptive unconscious interacts with our conscious to make decisions: sometimes wisely, sometimes erroneously.

One example he gave was about the Implicit Association Test which measures our unconscious attitudes to race etc. Most people have an unconscious preference for white over black people. I decided to put myself to the test. Bear with me there is a broader political point coming.

I did the race test and it came out with the result that I have a moderate preference for white over black people. I'm not really surprised by this given the world in which we live. Before you hurl abuse at me, let me just say a couple of things for context. Firstly, this test measures unconscious attitudes (which can be changed but only by deliberately managing the sense data that creeps into the on board computer.) Secondly, this is about the level of prejudice that Malcolm Gladwell himself had and he is half Jamaican. Indeed, more that 50 per cent of black people also have an unconscious preference for white over black people. It's the society we live in.

Now, Project Implicit which runs this test also did a test for McCain v Obama and race. I did this test also. Amazingly, the result this time is that I had a slight preference for black people over white people! (It's hardly worth reporting that I had moderate preference for Barack Obama over John McCain other than it was only moderate.)Gladwell explains in his book that by showing people images of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela prior to them taking the test, the results change. That is exactly what happened!

And taking the test, I could feel my conscious wrestling with my unconscious to place positive terms next to black people on the first test and exactly the OPPOSITE on the second test- I was having to force myself to put positive words in the white box.

What does this mean in political and social terms? Well, it has to mean that as long as people continue to view Barack Obama positively then he will have some impact on the unconscious associations people make between race and particular characteristics. So will Barack Obama move America's race relations forward? Absolutely he will.

More broadly, it seems to me that these insights create other issues when it come to politics, society and culture. We need to be conscious of the unconscious stereotypes that we attribute to particular groups. We also need to be careful about using group specific terms in relation to particular negative traits. 'Islamic extremism' is a term that simply has to go. This is not political correctness, it is just that the term creates too much negativity and takes down too many innocent by-standers with it.

Finally, particular groups can benefit from these unconscious associations. Gladwell describes the 'Warren Harding error.' Harding was tall, handsome, charming, authoritative, everything anyone would wish to find in a president. He was elected. He was a disaster. It is grossly unjust. I have to confess though that the 'tall and dark' error is not something that I will be working particularly hard to correct......


  1. What an interesting piece, adding empirical layers to a long held intuition: that there are warring sides to ourselves, and that we must be aware of their mechanisms so our least favoured parts do not win out through unconscious mechanisms.

    However, the leap from that to the idea that we must lie, misinform or deliberately create lacunae in our percepts in order to achieve that goal is one step too far and totally ignores the infinitely more grave consequences of doing so.

    The phrase “Islamic extremists” contains information about the goals, origins and associations of those who fall under the phrases, just like the phrases “Italian fascists”, “Christian fundamentalists” or “Irish nationalists”. Remove the adjectives, or replace them with ANY others, and you have a massive fall off in descriptive capability which vastly outweighs the miniscule benefit (if any) to Italians, the Irish or Christians. It also removes the perfectly warranted societal pressure to influence those in one’s group not to attack the society in which we live. As a man, there is a pressure on me - which I in turn pass onto my fellow men - to achieve and maintain some sort of equality between the sexes; and so forth for being caucasian with racism, British with nationalism etc. Headlines of the form “Human Being Commits Crime” leave us both ignorant and irresponsible, simultaneously epistemologically cocooned and physically vulnerable.

    Alexander Fiske-Harrison (

  2. Amusingly, I just performed the same test as above and my result was "Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for African American compared to European American." Along with 4% of respondents...

  3. All I would say about the 'islamic extremism' point is that we never referred to Irish Republicanism as 'Catholic terrorism' as it would rightly have been met with strong objection.

    Thank you for the comments and congratulations on getting through the test alive!

  4. That's because their express aims were not centered on notions derived from their Catholicism, but Irish nationalism and republicanism - they just happen to be Catholic (and human, and white and so on). NB the PLO, although all Muslim, were not referred to as Islamic extremists. However, when people say they kill in the name of Allah (rather than the Palestinian state), then one, quite rightly, takes them at their word and says their Islamism has become extreme and is their defining feature.