Black man vs. white woman: Hillary Clinton contends with gender stereotypes,
and Barack Obama with racial ones. The answer does not bode well for
Since Barack Obama emerged as a serious challenger to Hillary Clinton
for the Democratic presidential nomination, the primaries have become, in
part, a referendum on whether Americans are more prepared for a woman or a
black man in the White House. The voting has been parsed for signs that the
candidates are drawing supporters beyond their particular "minority" "
demographic. Over the past month and a half, the feminist pioneers Gloria
Steinem and Robin Morgan have both published widely talked-about essays
arguing that Clinton would have long since sewn up the nomination if not for
the stubbornness of our national sexism. And when Clinton's primary victory
in New Hampshire last month caught everyone by surprise, some analysts
suggested that the polls had been so wrong beforehand in part because voters
in the overwhelmingly white state had been reluctant to share their true,
race-based reservations about Obama.
The discussion so far has been rather short on data. There have been surveys
asking whether Americans would vote for a black or female candidate for
President -- according to a December 2007 Gallup poll, 93 percent and 86
percent, respectively, say they would. Those answers should be interpreted
with some skepticism, however, because people are often unaware of their
biases and don't tend to reveal them honestly in surveys.
But turn away from the campaign trail, and toward the laboratories where
psychologists work, and a fascinating portrait of the primaries emerges. For
decades, researchers have been probing bias -- how it arises, how it
changes, how it fades away. Their work suggests that bias plays a more
powerful role in shaping opinions than most people are aware of. And they
suggest that the American mind treats race and gender quite differently.
Race can evoke more visceral, negative associations, the studies show, but
attitudes toward women are more inflexible and -- to judge by the current
dynamics of the presidential race -- ultimately more limiting.
"Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test,"
says Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University.
It would be a gross oversimplification to reduce the Democratic race to the
white woman versus the black man. Factors like Obama's eloquence and
inexperience and Clinton's policy mastery and her association with the
ambivalent legacy of her husband have played a larger role in how the race
has been talked about. And indeed, this presidential contest can be seen as
the country's attempt to lurch beyond a blinkered, monolithic identity
But in a campaign in which it's hard to find many substantive policy
differences between the leading Democratic contenders, it's notable how well
the psychological research on bias predicts the race we've seen so far.
Obama's ability to disarm the initial reservations of an increasing number
of white voters as the race has progressed -- especially over the past week,
in his string of eight straight primary victories -- fits with the findings
of bias researchers that racial bias is strikingly mutable, and can be
mitigated and even erased by everything from clothing and speech cadence to
setting and skin tone.
As Clinton has discovered, gender stereotypes are stickier. Women can be
seen as ambitious and capable, or they can be seen as likable, a host of
studies have shown, but it's very hard for them to be seen as both -- hence
the intense scrutiny and much-debated impact of Clinton's moment of
emotional vulnerability in a New Hampshire diner last month.
As the race moves toward the possibly decisive March 4 primaries in Ohio and
Texas, Clinton and Obama will have to continue to negotiate the complex
demands of campaigning for an office that has been held by an unbroken
string of 43 white men. But while this presidential campaign has proven a
stage on which these issues can dramatically play out, they also run deeply
through the rest of our society. And if the ample literature on bias shows
anything, it is that, for all the difficulties Americans have with race, it
may prove that attitudes about women are the hardest to change.
. . .
Race and gender are both traits that we cannot help but notice. One hundred
milliseconds after we have first laid eyes on someone, we have made a
determination about their race; 50 milliseconds later, we have determined
their gender. But the reactions are not identical.
When psychologists talk about bias, they use three technical categories:
stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Stereotyping is cognitive bias,
the tendency to ascribe people a set of traits based on the group they
belong to (e.g., "black people are good at sports," "Jews are cheap").
Prejudice is an emotional bias, disliking someone because of their group
identity. And discrimination is how we act on the first two.
Sexual prejudice isn't terribly common -- male chauvinists don't dislike
women, they just have particular ideas about their capabilities and how they
should behave -- but with race, stereotypes tend to go hand-in-hand with
Many studies have shown the prevalence of negative associations among white
Americans toward blacks. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and Anthony Greenwald of
the University of Washington have done influential work showing that most
whites, whatever their professed racial attitudes, are quicker to associate
positive words with images of whites, and quicker to associate negative
words with blacks. The test they developed, the Implicit Association Test,
or IAT, has become one of the most common tools for measuring bias.
Joshua Correll, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago,
measures bias in a more dynamic way, looking at associations with danger. In
one set of studies he had mostly white participants play a primitive video
game in which they had to make split-second "shoot/no-shoot" decisions based
on whether the figure on the screen was holding a gun. Most subjects, he
found, were more trigger-happy when presented with an image of a black man.
But follow-up studies have also shown that these biases can be sharply
reduced, and in some cases even erased. When participants, for example, are
shown images of well-liked black public figures before taking the IAT, their
anti-black biases disappear.
"We're finding that racial stereotyping and prejudice are extremely
contextual," says Correll. "You can see real reductions in prejudice, and
sometimes it actually reverses," crossing over into a sort of stereotypic
And this, Correll argues, works to the advantage of someone like Obama. "You
look at Obama, and he represents himself incredibly well," Correll says.
"There are a whole lot of contextual cues that tell us this is someone you
don't need to worry about."
The pollster John Zogby sees some signs that white voters have grown more
comfortable with black candidates. He offers the example of Harold Ford, the
young, black Democratic congressman who narrowly lost his bid for one of
Tennessee's US Senate seats in 2006. Traditionally, Zogby points out, black
candidates do worse on Election Day than in pre-election polling because
people tell pollsters they're more comfortable with black candidates than
they actually are -- this phenomenon, the so-called Bradley Effect, is what
some analysts thought helped Clinton last month in New Hampshire. But, Zogby
points out, Ford actually did better in the final vote than in pre-election
polling, suggesting a dissipation of the Bradley Effect.
Some of the most dramatic work in racial bias mitigation was published in
2001 by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, a husband-and-wife team of
evolutionary psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara,
and their then-student Robert Kurzban. In their study, they presented
participants with a series of images of people, each with a sentence that
the person in the image had supposedly said. Later on, the test subject
would be asked to recall who had said what.
What they were after were wrong answers. The ways in which test subjects
misattributed quotes betrayed the categories by which they grouped people.
Subjects, for example, were far more apt to misattribute something one black
man had said to another black man, rather than to a white man or to a woman.
Surprisingly, though, the researchers found that they were able to get
people to stop paying attention to race with a simple manipulation: they
showed images of people wearing one of two colors of T-shirts, paired with
quotes that gave the impression that the T-shirts correlated with membership
on different "teams." In response, test-takers started grouping people on
the basis of the T-shirt color rather than their skin color, confusing
T-shirt "team members" of different ethnicities with each other.
And while the study wasn't looking at bias, the implications are clear. "If
you're going to discriminate on the basis of race you first have to notice
it," says Kurzban, now at the University of Pennsylvania. In an experimental
setting, at least, he argues, you can get people to stop doing that.
The researchers didn't see a similar effect for gender. According to Tooby,
"People can cease to notice ethnicity as a factor in how they conceptualize
somebody in a way that they don't seem to be able to with gender."
. . .
There is work suggesting that implicit gender stereotypes can also display a
degree of mutability, at least among women. Studies conducted by Nilanjana
Dasgupta, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst, have found that exposing women to photos and biographical
information about accomplished women like Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, or the
Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did undermine the stereotypes the
women taking the test held about the incompatibility of women and
Still, psychologists specializing in gender bias say that many studies have
shown how strong a force gender stereotyping is.
In one particularly telling strain of research, called the Goldberg
paradigm, two sets of participants are asked to comment on something,
perhaps a resume or a speech or a work scenario in which a boss speaks with
an employee. To one audience, the person involved is described as a woman,
in the other he is a man. Time and again, male participants (and, in some
cases, women as well) judge the resume more harshly if it is a woman's, or
say the speech was strident if given by a woman but assertive if given by a
man, or that the female boss was pushy while the male boss was concerned.
Women in these studies are typically judged to be less capable than men with
identical qualifications, but it's not impossible for them to be seen as
competent. The problem is that if they're understood to be capable, the
majority of respondents also see them as less likable.
"The deal is that women generally fall into two alternatives: they are
either seen as nice but stupid or smart but mean," says Susan Fiske, a
psychology professor at Princeton who specializes in stereotyping.
And unlike racial bias, there's little evidence that these attitudes are
According to Eagly of Northwestern, the problem isn't that women aren't
traditionally understood as smart, but that they traditionally aren't
understood to be "assertive, competitive, take-charge" types. More than
intelligence, she argues, this "agentic" quality is what we look for in
leaders, and, as both surveys and experimental studies have shown, we find
it deeply discomfiting in women.
"That's what Hillary Clinton is up against," argues Eagly. "She's had to
show her toughness, then people turn around and say she's too cold."
Amy Cuddy, a psychologist at Northwestern, suggests that the durability of
gender stereotypes stems in part from the fact that most people have far
more exposure to people of the opposite gender than to people of different
races. As a result, they feel more entitled to their attitudes about gender.
"Contact hasn't undermined these stereotypes, and it might even strengthen
them," she says. "Many people don't believe seeing women as kind or soft is
a stereotype. They're not even going to question it, because they think it's
a good thing."
Tooby takes a more biological view. As he argues, in the prehistoric
environment in which our brains evolved, race had no meaning -- no one could
travel far enough to meet anyone who didn't look like them. Gender, on the
other hand, meant a lot. It predicted what someone's status would be, what
their priorities were, whether they were a potential rival or a potential
Indeed, the only other trait that we notice as strongly as gender, Tooby
points out, is age. Clinton is 60 years old, Obama 46. And no matter who
wins the Democratic nomination, the face-off against the 71-year-old John
McCain may introduce a whole new aspect to the identity politics of the