Winning the Race

Winning the Race

NYU Alumni Magazine
Fall 2012

Andrea Crawford

As the first African-American president runs for reelection, researchers examine the subliminal influence of political ads

 In 1990, longtime North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was trailing challenger Harvey Gantt, an African-American who supported affirmative action, when the Helms campaign produced the infamous “hands” commercial. As the camera focused on the hands of a white person holding a letter, the narrator said: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority.” Helms went on to win the election.

In another famous appeal, an ad for the 1988 Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush featured the menacing mug shot of convicted murderer Willie Horton. The spot explained how the African-American had committed assault while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison—a program supported by Michael Dukakis, the state’s governor and the Democratic presidential candidate. Bush won the presidency in a landslide.

It was into this environment that Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture, and communication at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, came of age. These types of appeals clearly work, he thought, and he set out to determine how and why. Around the same time, David Amodio was first exploring research that showed self-avowed egalitarians actually exhibited unconscious biases. Now an NYU associate professor of psychology and neural science, he began his career asking how such automatic types of prejudice could exist in opposition to one’s beliefs. Until recently, these kinds of questions were complicated by a reliance on often-flawed self-reports—people simply feel uncomfortable admitting bias and are sometimes not even conscious of it. But today, McIlwain and Amodio have come together in a timely pursuit. As the first African-American president runs for reelection, they are investigating the power of racial appeals in political ads by turning to neuroscience…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , ,