In the presidential election, it’s not a matter of whether racism will appear in campaign messaging, but when. President Obama is running for reelection with the support of the majority of black and Latino voters. Mitt Romney is challenging Mr. Obama with an almost exclusively white constituency behind him. Both candidates will raise and spend unprecedented amounts of money on political advertisements, as will their respective parties and allied super PACs.
A crucial question is: How will we know when pro-Romney ads are potentially racist? It’s not always so easy to recognize.
Reasonable people will disagree about whether an ad appeals to race in an innocuous or outright racist way. This is why we developed the Index of Racist Potential. It is based on the content of more than 1,000 political advertisements we analyzed that were sponsored by candidates in federal election contests from 1972 through 2006 and that included at least one candidate of color (black or Latino). The index measures the degree that a given ad has the potential to evoke – consciously or unconsciously – voters’ stereotypical attitudes about people of color, regardless of the intent of the candidate or campaign team.
1. Does the ad reference racial stereotypes?
Does the ad reference a longstanding racial stereotype historically associated with African-Americans? Does it state or suggest thatPresident Obama is untrustworthy or prone toward criminality? Does it imply that he takes advantage of the system or is lazy?
A recent ad from the Romney campaign, for instance, has the effect of presenting the untrustworthiness stereotype, calling Obama’s statements “not true,” and “misleading.” Then the ad goes a step beyond, by saying, “but that’s Barack Obama,” that is, the kind of person who misleads and says things that are not true.
2. Does the ad show a Obama’s image alongside a racial stereotype?
Does the ad feature an image of President Obama alongside a stereotype reference? This is an important sign because the image serves as a cue. It tells the viewer not only to associate the allegation of, say, criminality with President Obama, but with Barack Obama, who is black.
In the same ad mentioned in question No. 1, while featuring the image of a smiling Obama, the announcer says, “he also attacked Hillary Clinton with vicious lies.” This provides the opportunity to make the association: Obama, who is black, with “lying,” not to mention the descriptors “attacked” and “viciousness,” which also conjure the association with stereotypes of black aggression.
3. Are all the people surrounding a Romney white?
If there are other people in the ad besides Mitt Romney, are they all white? Having people surrounding a candidate in a political ad sends the message that those people are whom the candidate ostensibly represents. Featuring an all-white cast of supporters alongside a white candidate makes an inherent critical contrast. It says that “we” whites, represented by Mitt Romney, are different than “those” people.
In a two-and-a-half minute ad Romney ran last month he spoke at length about “Americans,” about how “we” are tired. He talked about “all of the thousands of good and decent Americans” who “love America.” Yet of the dozens of images included in the epic ad, every single person is white, making the association clear: “We” “good and decent” Americans who “love America” look like the folks featured in this ad.