The politics of perceiving skin color

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Pete Souza - White House via CNP

Whether or not you agree with Barack Obama’s politics may influence how dark- or light-skinned you think he is, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which set out to determine whether political views can skew skin color perception, included three experiments. In all three, participants viewed photographs of either President Obama or a fictional biracial politician. In some of the photographs, the candidate’s skin tone was darkened or lightened, while others were left untouched. Study participants, who were also polled about their political views, were shown the various photographs. In the first experiment, where an unknown candidate was used, participants were made to believe that he either shared or opposed their views. In the second two experiments, images of Barack Obama from the 2008 presidential campaign were shown to participants. In all three cases, people who agreed with the politician’s views were more likely to pick lighter-skinned images of him; people who disagreed were more likely to pick darker-skinned images.

The studies were conducted by Eugene Caruso from the University of Chicago’s business school, in collaboration with Nicole Mead from the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University, and Emily Balcetis, in the psychology department at New York University. For the two experiments that used photographs of President Obama, there were not enough African American participants to accurately assess whether there were any major differences in perception between black and white participants (10% or fewer of the subjects were African American in both trials), but for the first experiment, which had a broader subject pool, researchers say that demographics had no bearing on the influence of political bias. They write: “[P]articipants completed a number of demographic measures, none of which had a significant effect…”

While other factors may not have had much influence, when it came to biracial candidates at least, political views were strongly correlated with bias. In one study, participants were also shown photographs of John McCain. No bias toward lighter or darker skin tone in images of the former presidential candidate was evident, regardless of participants’ politics. Yet when examining images of candidates of mixed ethnic backgrounds, bias was plain. “Across the three studies reported here,” the researchers write, “we found that partisans not only ‘darken’ those with whom they disagree, but also ‘lighten’ those with whom they agree.” The findings suggest that race bias is very much alive and well in the U.S., and more ingrained than we might like to believe. The researchers highlight several examples in which race, or more specifically “blackness” was emphasized to a public figure’s detriment—the scandal over whether the Hillary Clinton campaign had deliberately darkened Obama’s complexion in a video ad or, alas, when TIME ran a deliberately darkened photograph of O.J. Simpson on the cover following his arrest in 1994.

Yet while such examples speak to the ongoing problem of racial bias—and how it can be exploited in politics or in the media—the study’s authors suggest that these findings, (and perhaps Sammy Sosa’s recent effort to lighten his skin), point to a more insidious problem. “Our results suggest that voters themselves may alter how they see a racially ambiguous candidate, depending on their own level of support and their corresponding desire to see the candidate favorably.”