Grad student: Birther controversy largely based on race
Published: Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 04:05
According to a university doctoral student's recent study, racial prejudice is linked to the public's opinion of President Barack Obama's performance in office and the controversy surrounding his birth certificate.
Eric Hehman, who studies psychology, recently published his award-winning study in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. His study, "Evaluations of Presidential Performance: Race, Prejudice and Perceptions of Americanism," won him the Albert Bandura Graduate Research Award, a psychology research prize sponsored by the American Psychological Society.
In recent weeks, the debate concerning Obama's citizenship resurfaced, even after the president produced his long-form birth certificate in April. More than two years ago, the state of Hawaii released his short-form certificate. Hehman believes this sustained controversy is a manifestation of attitude-based prejudice.
"Unlike accusations of Obama being a socialist, there was a lot of hard evidence that the birthers' accusations weren't real," Hehman said.
Other claims about Obama surfaced early in the 2008 election. Obama was characterized as being a Muslim, socialist and later, a member of a radical church.
According to Hehman's study, these are all criticisms of Obama's Americanism, a variable Hehman created specifically to use in his study. Americanism accounts for how well a leader fits into standard American ideals as a U.S. citizen.
Hehman designed the study to evaluate each subject's level of racism, view of Obama's Americanism and evaluation of his performance in office. Because Vice President Joe Biden and Obama have similar political stances, each subject was asked questions to measure the perceived Americanism and performance rating of Biden as well, Hehman said.
Political science professor David Wilson said there are many studies that suggest the prototypical American was born and raised in America and is white, Christian and English-speaking.
"When people see someone that deviates, in their own mind, from their ideal American image, they are susceptible to biases and prejudices that they may be unaware of, also known as unconscious or implicit bias," Wilson said.
These unconscious biases are prominent in American culture, but are also widely unaccepted, Hehman said.
"You're not supposed to show racism," he said.
In Hehman's study, white participants who believed Obama was un-American rated his performance poorly. Likewise, those who scored his Americanism as high were more likely to approve of his performance. Black participants did not exhibit this correlation and neither did white participants scoring Biden.
Hehman's study found that because social norms declare racial prejudice to be inappropriate, highly-prejudiced whites may seek alternative reasons for their lack of acceptance of Obama. According to Hehman, those whites may feel a need to legitimize their beliefs about Obama by attributing them to other factors, including certain un-American social policies.
Hehman said the claim that Obama falsified his birth records fits the mold of legitimatizing prejudiced beliefs. Wilson, who studies public opinion on racial attitudes, attributed the questioning of Obama's legitimacy to anything other than racial prejudice.
"So-called birthers will justify questioning Obama's birthplace for any reason other than race, so as to avoid thinking they are racially biased," he said.
Sophomore Rebecca Marshall said she believes the debate surrounding the birth certificate would never surround a white president.
"It's not necessarily racism, but it could be a subconscious factor," Marshall said.
News coverage of Osama bin Laden, the orchestrator of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has pushed the birth certificate debate out of the media's attention, Hehman said.
He believes the media hype will be enough to take the birthers' accusations out of the public eye until the next election cycle, but that still may not be enough to push the debate out of sight.
"I also thought the debate would stop after Obama produced documentation years ago," he said.
Freshman Rob Hagerty agreed with Hehman, and said he does not believe the speculation about Obama's citizenship will continue since the president declared bin Laden killed.
"Nobody cares about his birth certificate, because Obama got Osama," Hagerty said.
Regardless of Obama's level of involvement in the capture of bin Laden, Wilson said he believes the true quieting factor is the recent release of the president's long-form birth certificate.
"You will see more Republicans saying that this is a non-issue and the party should not focus on it any longer, which is a departure from their past position that it was an unanswered or fair question for citizens to ask," he said.
Regardless of media coverage of recent events, Hehman said he believes most of the speculators will not budge in their questioning of Obama's validity.
"The death of bin Laden might make some people change their minds, but the hardcore critics won't change their opinions," he said.