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Commentary: Not knowing people of other races, people tend to force individuals into stereotypes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 13, 2008 - Can we please stop acting surprised that race matters? It's been a focal point in the media's recent discussion of the election - mostly that some people consciously or unconsciously will not vote for Obama because of his race. Don't get me wrong. I agree that race is a relevant construct in our present day. However, the media's sense of shock that their own pumping of negative stereotypes of Black men in particular, and African Americans in general, just might have an impact on the way some perceive Barack Obama is exasperating.

Research has found that not only are images of African Americans skewed negatively compared to the portrayals of Whites but these images affect viewers' attitudes. So, those who watched more television were more likely to say that stereotypical representations of Blacks were more realistic.

That means that we start to believe that the images we see are accurate portrayals rather than distortions. They become self-fulfilling stereotypes. We are then more prone to see attributes and individuals who fit our ideas rather than those who disconfirm them.

By watching your local news, you can easily do your own study to replicate the findings that Blacks were overrepresented as perpetrators of violence. Even though statistically, Whites are more likely to be victimized by other Whites, media and news sources over represent Blacks as criminals thereby increasing fear and mistrust. Because of this, we should not be surprised when some White voters express uncertainty about Obama based on race. If all we take in about Black men is even half true, Obama must be dangerous.

Then, add a segregated society to the equation. So much of our knowledge about those who are different from us comes from the media. If you live in a diverse city or an integrated neighborhood, you might be disregarding me at this point. Stay with me. Even if where you live is racially diverse, calculate the percentage of people you have invited into your home that are of a different race or ethnicity. When we fail to have close relationships with people who are different from us, we rely more heavily on the images in the media. How else would we know about the other? For a large number of Americans, these circumstances are their reality.

Media images are powerful. If you are still in doubt, consider marketing. Corporations understand that imagery and messaging are key. Otherwise, they would not spend millions to attempt to sway you to see things from their perspective.

When you put all of these pieces together - negative representations of Black men paired with the omission of positive images, segregation, lack of personal relationships across racial lines - it should not take long to understand why some Whites are skeptical of Obama. They just don't feel as though they can relate to him. They believe he is not trustworthy. He will not represent the interests of all of Americans. He's a dangerous choice.

I'm not leaving people of color out of this analysis, because they are just as susceptible to the negative imagery. Despite the increased likelihood of encountering opposing evidence, when these negative images are internalized, people of color can harbor those same beliefs. They become unable to see a person of color as capable of more than what is perpetuated in mass media. They become skeptical of the "exception."

Barack Obama becomes more than Barack Obama. He becomes a proxy for all of our ideas about Black men. We lose sight of the fact that his mother is White; that his grandmother, who was integral in raising him, was also. People have trouble seeing just him for who he is, and his message gets clouded by their expectations and misperceptions.

Related, I am not arguing it is an appropriate way to select the leader of our nation, but many have expressed affinity for a politician simply because he/she seems like "one of us" that they could "sit down and have a drink/coffee" with the person who seems "down to earth." Personally, I think this argument is problematic for a number of reasons. However, examining the issue at hand, it serves as another example of how race might influence voters. Insert images of Black men for Barack Obama and you have certain defeat. It's the same reason the McCain/Palin ticket is attempting to link Obama to domestic terrorists. Who wants to sit down to for coffee with "that one?"

I am well aware that numerous Americans will cast a vote regardless of race. But for those who are still caught up on Obama's race, these dynamics very well might be a factor. Can we be honest with ourselves and stop acting surprised and clueless that these issues exist? Yes, race still matters. No, we are not immune to media imagery. And we continue to do our share to perpetuate it.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks

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