Stereotype Threat and That Obama Tape

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Did the Drudge-driven brouhaha over Obama's "Quiet Riot" speech unsettle him before the debate? One conservative considers the question.

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Reviewing the president's debate performance Wednesday night, David Frum asks:

Obama's performance was so disengaged that I was left to wonder: had that Daily Caller/Fox News tape got inside his head? Was he so determined not to look like an angry black man that he ended up looking ... kind of like a wimp?

Though he doesn't use the phrase, what Frum is really asking is whether or not Obama was reacting to something social scientists call "stereotype threat." The concept was laid out in 1999 in the pages of The Atlantic, in an article that discussed why black college students often struggle in academic environments more than would be predicted by their economic or educational background alone. Wrote Stanford University professor Claude M. Steele:

Some time ago I and two colleagues, Joshua Aronson and Steven Spencer, tried to see the world from the standpoint of these students, concerning ourselves less with features of theirs that might explain their troubles than with features of the world they see. A story I was told recently depicts some of these. The storyteller was worried about his friend, a normally energetic black student who had broken up with his longtime girlfriend and had since learned that she, a Hispanic, was now dating a white student. This hit him hard. Not long after hearing about his girlfriend, he sat through an hour's discussion of The Bell Curve in his psychology class, during which the possible genetic inferiority of his race was openly considered. Then he overheard students at lunch arguing that affirmative action allowed in too many underqualified blacks. By his own account, this young man had experienced very little of what he thought of as racial discrimination on campus. Still, these were features of his world. Could they have a bearing on his academic life?

My colleagues and I have called such features "stereotype threat" -- the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. Everyone experiences stereotype threat. We are all members of some group about which negative stereotypes exist, from white males and Methodists to women and the elderly. And in a situation where one of those stereotypes applies -- a man talking to women about pay equity, for example, or an aging faculty member trying to remember a number sequence in the middle of a lecture -- we know that we may be judged by it.

Like the young man in the story, we can feel mistrustful and apprehensive in such situations. ...

With time he may weary of the extra vigilance these situations require and of what the psychologists Jennifer Crocker and Brenda Major have called the "attributional ambiguity" of being on the receiving end of negative stereotypes. To reduce this stress he may learn to care less about the situations and activities that bring it about -- to realign his self-regard so that it no longer depends on how he does in the situation. We have called this psychic adjustment "disidentification." Pain is lessened by ceasing to identify with the part of life in which the pain occurs. This withdrawal of psychic investment may be supported by other members of the stereotype-threatened group -- even to the point of its becoming a group norm. But not caring can mean not being motivated. And this can have real costs. When stereotype threat affects school life, disidentification is a high price to pay for psychic comfort. Still, it is a price that groups contending with powerful negative stereotypes about their abilities -- women in advanced math, African-Americans in all academic areas -- may too often pay.

This concept -- disidentification -- is a fascinating one to consider in light of the question Frum posed. Applying this lens to Obama's debate performance, it's not just that a political figure was psyched out by the evening-before-game-day release of a potentially damaging mystery video, but rather that the release's power lay in the way it reintroduced the topic of race into the political contest. As Steele and his colleagues reported, in carefully designed psychological tests, stereotype threat was so powerful that it even "impaired intellectual functioning in a group unlikely to have any sense of group inferiority" -- young white men.

The tests also found that stereotype bias most impacted high-achieving minorities. "In all our research," wrote Steele, "the most achievement-oriented students, who were also the most skilled, motivated, and confident, were the most impaired by stereotype threat. This fact had been under our noses all along--in our data and even in our theory. A person has to care about a domain in order to be disturbed by the prospect of being stereotyped in it. That is the whole idea of disidentification -- protecting against stereotype threat by ceasing to care about the domain in which the stereotype applies."

Stereotype threat could also make students risk-averse, and overly focused on facts at the expense of concepts.

It's a long way from studies of undergraduates to theorizing about how the performance of the first black president of the United States might be affected by a right-wing push -- the night before his first re-election debate -- on a video of him speaking in a code-switching accent at a historically black university. (Do read this 2010 Slate piece on the topic, too -- it's really good). And there are plenty of other possible and plausible explanations for Obama's whiff. But if, like Frum, folks are going to ask the question, it's interesting to consider what we know from the social science literature on this topic, too.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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