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Profile: Dan Vergano
Dan Vergano was a participant or observer in the following events:
A report on a psychological study conducted and written by Eric Hehman of the University of Delaware and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology finds that race plays an intrinsic role in many voters’ perceptions of President Obama, and plays a powerful role in whether or not Americans believe Obama is a US citizen. Although definitive proof of Obama’s US citizenship has long been publicly available (see June 13, 2008, August 21, 2008, and October 30, 2008), for many, especially on the right, the issue remains either unsettled or, for some, settled against Obama, whom they firmly believe to be either a foreign citizen or some sort of “illegal alien.” Hehman’s study concludes that racial prejudice plays a strong role in the continued refusal by some to accept Obama’s citizenship. The study compares voter perceptions of Obama with his vice president, Joseph Biden, whom Hehman calls “the most comparable target” with Obama.
Major Disparity between 'High-Prejudice,' 'Low-Prejudice' Whites - Behman writes: “The influence of racial prejudice in contemporary US society is typically manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure. As a consequence, whites’ prejudice is more likely to be expressed in discriminatory responses when these actions can be justified by other factors.” The study asked 295 people, both black and white, to evaluate the performance and “Americanism” of the two politicians in late 2009. It also included six questions, widely used in psychology, to gauge whether folks are more or less prejudiced against blacks. The study finds, “Overall, as expected, white participants tended to view Obama as less American,” and as a direct result they judge him as “worse-performing” as a national leader than Biden. “Moreover, whites higher in prejudice rated Obama as less American and as performing more poorly as president.” “Low-prejudice” whites tend to see Obama as higher-performing and either “as American” or “more American” than Biden: “Why low prejudice whites perceived Obama as higher in Americanism and performing better than Biden is not entirely clear. One possibility is that people see presidents, as the primary national leader, as more prototypical of the group and thus more American than vice presidents. Alternatively, the differential response of low prejudice whites to Obama and Biden may reflect their concern with appearing nonprejudiced, particularly during a period when the election of a black president was lauded as a sign of progress for not only blacks but America more generally.” The study examines the “prejudice scores” of the study participants, and finds “higher prejudice predicted whites seeing Obama as less American, which, in turn, predicted lower evaluations of his performance.” Blacks tended to rate Obama’s performance higher than Biden’s, but do not view their “Americanism” as significantly different. Hehman finds: “Overall, the results support our hypothesis that negative evaluations of Obama by white participants may be racially motivated. Whites are guarded about openly endorsing the view that blacks are less American than whites, which may suppress overall mean differences in performance ratings and perceptions of Obama being un-American. However, bias in viewing blacks as less American than whites appeared to implicitly underlie whites’ negative evaluations of his performance. Also, consistent with previous research, blacks did not demonstrate such a relationship, nor did Americanism mediate the relationship between prejudice and performance evaluations when Vice President Biden acted as target for either whites or blacks. Whereas previous work has linked white prejudice with negative perceptions of Obama, the current work reveals a mechanism that may be largely responsible for this effect, Obama’s non-prototypicality (largely in terms of his race) and thus reduced perceptions of his Americanism.” Hehman notes that media speculations that the “birther” controversy is fueled by racial prejudice are “sadly the case. As the United States approaches important decisions regarding issues such as economic reform, health care, and overseas military interventions, the intrusion of racial attitudes in the evaluation of political leaders’ performance is ironically inconsistent with what many believe to be ‘American.’”
Response to 'Long Form' Certificate Release - USA Today will report on Hehman’s study on April 27, the same day that Obama releases his “long form” birth certificate in an attempt to put an end to the controversy over Obama’s citizenship (see April 27, 2011). Reporter Dan Vergano will ask Hehman for his response to the release in the context of the study, and Hehman will respond via email: “While I can’t speak to the birther movement specifically, this controversy and others like it are what initially sparked my interest and led to the recent publication [of the study]. President Obama has consistently faced a number of controversies that are, frankly, not based on fact. We thought that his critics’ persistence in pursuing these fantasies, such as Obama’s birth in a foreign nation or being a Muslim, in the face of facts saying otherwise, might be indirectly rooted in racism. Our research investigated whether people who held racial prejudices might be more likely to see Obama as ‘un-American,’ presumably because of his race. Indeed, this is what we found. Whites who were prejudiced against blacks were more likely to see Obama as un-American, and in turn, evaluated Obama as performing more poorly as president. Whites who were not prejudiced, and blacks in general, did not do so. Additionally and importantly, this relationship was only found with Obama, as prejudiced whites did not see Vice President Joe Biden as un-American, despite the fact that Obama and Biden share political party affiliation and agenda.” He will conclude: “The April 27 release of Obama’s long-form birth certificate is a situation where President Obama and the White House eventually had to exert effort to quell a controversy that should never have been an issue. Our research indicates that one reason it may have initially become an issue at all has more to do with his race than his place of birth. We find that racial prejudice can, in part, influence evaluations of an elected leader, a phenomenon which is quite ‘un-American.’” [USA Today, 4/27/2011]
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