The Oakland police murders, President Obama's teleprompter, and implicit processing
March 22, 2009
The headline of Sunday’s LA Times screamed “Oakland mourns 3 slain officers” (online version). Immediately I constructed a mental model that the murderer was a low-life black man between the ages of 18 and 30.
And of course, I was right. His name was Lovelle Mixon, age 27. Mixon, who was killed in the gun battle, was wanted on a no-bail warrant for violating his parole on a conviction for assault with deadly weapon. A fourth officer is near death.
My mental model was based partly on the reputation of Oakland as famous for black crime. This is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Oakland:
Despite comprising only 30–35% of the population, African-Americans are over-represented in crime statistics, with the majority of crimes occurring in heavily African-American neighborhoods. Earl Ofari Hutchinson mentions crime in Oakland as an example of a rising problem of "black-on-black" crime, which Oakland shares with other major cities in the US. Bill Cosby mentions Oakland as one of the many American cities where crime is "endemic" and young African-American men are being murdered and incarcerated in disproportionate numbers. Cosby alleges that the parents of such youths and young men, and the Black community in general, have failed to inculcate proper standards of moral behavior.
In a November, 2008 Congressional Quarterly Press publication, the city of Oakland has the dubious distinction of ranking fifth worst in a nationwide ranking of violent crime. The ranking takes into account six crime categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.
In other words, Oakland has a reputation— a reputation that I was well aware of and that fed into the way I processed a headline like “Oakland mourns 3 slain officers.” In my brain there was an automatic connection between this headline and the thought that the perpetrator was black. Of course, the hardcopy LA Times article did not mention that he was black, and there were no photos. But with the link to Oakland, there was little doubt in my mind, and finding out that his first name was Lovelle clinched it. Online newspaper articles did not mention his race, but did include photos. Here is Mr. Mixon:
Sgt. Mark Dunakin John Hege Sgt. Daniel Sakai Sgt. Ervin Romans
The race of the victims was not an automatic thought. There certainly are large numbers of non-white policemen. But I was quite curious to find out the race of the victims, and I rather doubt that I was alone in that. Whereas the vast majority of black-on-white crime is kept out of the newspapers, crimes against police are an exception. And because I am concerned about the ongoing disaster of white displacement, I was particularly saddened when I saw the faces of these victims who had been murdered by a black man.
The publicity given to this crime will doubtless sharpen the attitudes of whites that they are often the victims of black criminality — at least in California where the story has been given a great deal of play. Even though black on white crime is not typically publicized, exceptions such as this feed into negative stereotypes that whites have of blacks. And there is no question that in fact blacks are far more likely to commit violent crimes against whites than the reverse.
Because they are typically part of the academic culture of the left, many psychologists have agonized about the fact that whites have unconscious negative stereotypes of blacks lurking down deep in their brains. These stereotypes are "implicit" in the sense that they are automatic, "knee-jerk" responses to images associated with blacks. For example, in most studies, about 80% of whites are quick to associate blacks with negative traits like criminality and low intelligence — traits that indeed are more common among blacks.
These implicit associations are difficult to change, but they may be influenced by media images. A recent study showed a dramatic drop in implicit negative attitudes of whites toward blacks since the presidential campaign of Barack Obama — from the usual 80% down to 51%. The 49% of whites without implicit negative associations with blacks is higher than the percentage of whites who voted for Obama, presumably because the subjects were college students — the only white group of whites to vote for Obama.
The researchers claim that the long-term effects will depend on whether Obama is viewed as a success: "If his presidency is highly successful, he would activate positive traits, thoughts and feelings for most people. However, the result may be less positive should his presidency prove to be less successful."
This may be so, but images like the Oakland police murders will also feed into the implicit attitudes of whites. It would be interesting to do a study of implicit attitudes of whites toward blacks in the San Francisco Bay Area in the aftermath of the murders of the policemen. I suspect that whites' unconscious associations with blacks may have returned to the baseline rate of 80% negative or even higher.
Despite the slobbering love affair between Obama and the media, reality has a way of intruding on the constant propaganda emanating from the liberal media. Already there are images of a less-than-competent Obama in conservative-oriented media. Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, and The Washington Times among others have hammered away on the theme that Obama seems lost without a teleprompter. Instead of saying "Obama announced that ...," Limbaugh routinely says "Obama's teleprompter announced that ...." (Here's a particularly stumbling performance sans teleprompter.)
It's one thing to routinely make fun of former President Bush. (Jay Leno has led the way on this for the last eight years. Recently, his monologues feature a segment titled "What's George Bush doing today?" in which an actor playing Bush does something completely mindless. For example, in one episode Bush lies face down on a swivel chair and propels himself in circles with a leaf blower.) Imagine the hysteria if Leno did the same with an Obama look-alike. Such images may be considered anti-white, and Leno often does his best to portray whites negatively. But the liberal media have a very long way to go to make people think that whites in general are unintelligent.
But in the case of blacks, the association of blacks with low intelligence continues to be part of whites' implicit associations with blacks. And this association is solidly grounded in reality: Dozens of research studies show that whether in Africa or America or Brazil, on average blacks are indeed substantially less intelligent than whites; there is good evidence that these racial differences are genetically influenced.
What this means is that the image of a stumbling Obama as an automaton who can only speak coherently when he is reading others' words very easily feeds into the negative images that most whites already have of blacks: Blacks are less intelligent and blacks in America are achieving far more than justified by their talents. Barack Obama as the affirmative action president.
And it means that the long-term effects of the Obama presidency on how whites think of blacks may depend not only on how successful Obama is. It will also depend on whether whites believe that Obama is anything more than an image created by the mainstream media desperately in search of a black man who could act the part of president.
In recent years, it became fashionable to talk about how Karl Rove was George W. Bush's brain. Suggestions that David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel are Obama's brain have a whole different connotation. And a very significant effect on how whites view blacks.