Sam Sommers has another terrific post (this one titled “Obama and the Racial Divide”) on the Psychology Today blog. Here are some excerpts.
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[T]he Times poll indicates that a majority of White and Black Americans think progress towards racial equality is being made, but only Whites seem to be getting more optimistic over time regarding the general state of race relations. Why is this? Well, in large part it seems to be the case that Whites and Blacks use different reference points in answering these questions.
In a series of research studies, Yale social psychologist Richard Eibach has observed the comparable result that White Americans typically perceive more progress towards racial equality than do Blacks. One reason for this racial gulf is that Whites typically answer the type of question found in the Times poll by comparing the present to the past, whereas Blacks tend to answer it by comparing the present to the racial ideals they envision for the future.
In other words, when you ask White Americans about race relations in this country, on average they tend to respond by thinking, well, things are certainly better now than they used to be, so I’ll say we’re doing OK. Blacks, on the other hand, are more likely to think about their personal experiences with prejudice or current racial disparities in important outcomes like health, income, or employment. Accordingly, Blacks more typically think, things still aren’t as good as they could or should be, so we’re not doing so great.
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So some of this racial disparity reflects different reference points used by Whites and Blacks in answering these questions. Anytime you ask someone for a global assessment of anything—whether marital happiness, job satisfaction, or the state of the economy—the reference point they choose to use is hugely important in determining the answer they give. . . .
But there also remains a more pessimistic interpretation of this racial divergence in opinions. Some of it clearly has to do with self-interest. In another set of studies, Eibach concludes that many White Americans view gains in racial equality as personal losses, whereas Black Americans see them as personal gains. Of course, it’s hard to get people to support movements that they see as working against their self-interests, suggesting that this gulf between Whites and Blacks can’t be bridged completely by getting everyone to focus on the same point of reference.
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To read the entire piece, click here.
For a sample of previous posts examining situational elements of voting or, specifically, the 2008 presidential election, see ” On Being a Mindful Voter,” “Implicit Associations in the 2008 Presidential Election,” “Lopez-Torres, Justice Scalia, and the Situation of Elections,” “Heart Brain or Wallet?” “Your Brain on Politics,” “Al Gore – The Situationist” and “Irrelevant Third Options in Presidential Campaigns.”