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Perceptions of discrimination and racial policy opinion after Obama

2011 study from the University of Michigan on racial attitudes and perceptions in America immediately before and after Barack Obama's election.

With the first-ever election of an African-American president, a debate began immediately about what this signaled in terms of American racial progress, and whether or not a “post-racial” society might be closer to realization. To test attitudes about the meaning of this event in real time, researchers at the University of Michigan surveyed the same random representative sample of the population directly before and after President Obama’s election.

Published in Public Opinion Quarterly, the 2011 study, “The Sword’s Other Edge: Perceptions of Discrimination and Racial Policy Opinion after Obama,” examines individual attitudes about race and perceptions of general levels of racial discrimination. The data were drawn from the 2008 Global Issues Election Survey (GIES): 617 respondents completed the survey between October 22 and November 3, 2008; post-election interviews with the same pool of respondents (82% participation rate) were completed by November 20.

Major findings include:

  • President Obama’s election was linked to a decreased perception of racial discrimination: “Prior to the election, 61% said there was ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ discrimination against blacks, but only 50% endorsed that view after the election.”
  • While most people perceived a decline in discrimination, some thought it actually increased: “One in four Americans (27%) revised their estimate of racial discrimination downward, compared to only 9% who revised it upward.”
  • The perception of decreased discrimination seemed to change the most among “Republicans and conservatives, those low in political knowledge, and those who were experiencing relatively low levels of anger and enthusiasm before the election.”
  • “Perceptual shifts were shown to be significantly larger among conservatives…. This provides the most support for the argument that changes in beliefs about discrimination may be driven by a desire to justify previous opposition to redistributive policies.”
  • When controlling for other variables, the “perceived discrimination increased by 0.03 points on the 0 to 1 scale among liberals, while dropping 0.13 points among conservatives.”
  • Despite decreased perceptions of discrimination, however, “those who saw less discrimination after the election also had slightly cooler feelings about blacks relative to whites.”

The researchers conclude that “across race, gender, age, and income, Americans seem to have taken the election of an African-American president as a sign that the country has moved significantly away from its racist past.”

Tags: race, presidency, elections, civil rights

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