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Is racial bias fueling anti-Obama rhetoric?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

It would seem so.  Or, as a particularly erudite friend observed the other day, “Duh!” New research published at Miller-McCune reports that unconscious negative attitudes toward African Americans make the anti-Obama rhetoric seem more persuasive. Contrary to Obama’s campaign calls for a national debate on race the researchers in this study conclude that “An unfortunate side effect of Obama’s ethnic identity, and that of others leaders and politicians of color, is that it may discourage rational debate.”

The Tea Party stridency is only one example of this racial bias directed at Obama.  A more disturbing example can be found on the CNN website in, of all places, the fashion section. A May 2010 piece on Michelle Obama’s style sense—meant to highlight her unique sense of style—instead drew intense racist comments from many, many commenters.  (Be sure to scroll to the end of the article to review the comments.)

There is something about the anonymity of website comments that frees people to say hateful and spiteful things that we certainly hope they would not say in person. Just as email communications promote dishonesty so too anonymous web comments promote the sense that it’s okay to say racist and negative things about others.

In focus groups, we hear the refrain routinely—“Well, it doesn’t make any difference to me, but it sure would to a lot of other people.” It is akin to the old “I’m not prejudiced, but all my neighbors are”. When we ask directly about bias, our mock jurors deny it.  In fact, when it is obvious that flagrant bias (racial or otherwise) is driving focus group discussion, I don’t ask them if they are biased; I ask two alternate questions:  1) “Has this been your perspective for a long time?”, and 2) “Do you think that a random group of your neighbors and co-workers would likely consider [bias issue] a problem?”

Racism is alive and well despite many believing we are now living in a post-racial society.  It’s simply better hidden but not really buried too deeply at all.

For real advocacy to happen–

  • We have to tell our stories in ways that transcend race while also acknowledging it is there.
  • We have to raise the flag (in a carefully crafted manner) to alert jurors to avoid stereotypes and bias and make their decisions based on justice and fairness. (Register at our website to see our article on Juries and Race.)
  • We have to trust jurors while also arming them with forewarning so they can avoid bias in their deliberations.
  • We have to make our clients, parties, witnesses, and their family members ‘like’ our jurors so that bias is minimized as “these people are like me”.

Your goal is to disrupt the habitual process of our attempts to find justification for pre-existing beliefs and to encourage consideration of facts and unbiased processing of evidence. It isn’t easy. It isn’t fair. But it does give your client their best shot at real justice.

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