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The election of President Obama led some observers to pronounce the beginning of a colorblind, post-racial era in the U.S. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Racial prejudice plays a role in driving reactions to President Obama and his policies, a UC Irvine psychologist has found.

Subtle racism among study subjects correlated with reluctance to vote for Obama and opposition to his healthcare reform plan. When presented with identical healthcare proposals, participants previously determined to be biased were more likely to support the one attributed to former President Clinton than the one attributed to Obama.

“We show that Obama’s race – not just the ideological character of his policies – is a factor in some of the opposition to his proposals,” said Eric Knowles, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and lead author of the study.

Beginning in the weeks prior to the 2008 election, researchers interviewed 285 white, Asian and Latino people, the majority of whom classified themselves as politically slightly left of center.

Anti-black bias was assessed through a task that required participants to sort words or names associated with black and white culture into positive and negative categories. The more “black” words a subject considered negative, the higher his or her level of prejudice was judged to be.

“The words appeared on a screen very quickly, and participants were given less than a second to respond to each one,” Knowles said. “They didn’t have a lot of time to deliberate. They had to give their immediate reaction.”

Researchers then looked at attitudes toward Obama, determining how subjects voted and how they felt about his approach to healthcare reform. People high in anti-black bias were 43 percent less likely to vote for Obama than those with a lesser bias.

Shown a single healthcare reform proposal and told it was either Clinton’s from 1993 or Obama’s, 65 percent of highly prejudiced participants supported the “Clinton” plan, while just 41 percent agreed with the same proposal attributed to Obama. Subjects who showed little bias were about evenly split on “Obama’s” healthcare plan: 48 percent opposed and 52 percent in favor.

Those with a bias also were more likely to have specific worries about the policy, such as that it would lead to socialism, raise costs and promote abortion.

The study gauged implicit prejudice – bias that is subconscious or expressed inadvertently, Knowles said, noting that this type of prejudice is more subtle than blatant, verbally expressed racism.

“You can’t just assume people are aware of how racial bias affects their decision making, or that they’ll admit it even if they are aware,” he said. “By measuring people’s gut reactions, we were able to examine how hidden biases operate in the political domain.”

The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In addition to Knowles, Brian Lowery and Rebecca Schaumberg of Stanford University worked on the study, which was funded by a research stipend from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.