Like millions of Americans, racism researcher Derald Wing Sue, PhD, felt a surge of pride as he witnessed the country electing its first president of color. But alongside those feelings, Sue maintains a social scientist's perspective: Why did a majority white country elect Barack Obama? And what might his presidency mean for race relations in this country?
In terms of the election itself, the Teachers College, Columbia University psychologist believes the event represented a rare constellation of events that likely overrode rather than canceled out some people's latent racial biases. Those factors include Obama's immense talent and charisma; the fact that he came on the heels of several major crises and an unpopular Republican president; and in a more psychological sense, that some white Americans voted for Obama because he doesn't represent a "typical" black person.
"There's no way for me to prove this, but I think it's possible that [some white] people voted for Obama because he represents their unconscious view that he is an exception to most black Americans," Sue says, "and at the same time cling to the belief that black Americans as a group are not as capable and qualified as white Americans"—in essence, a microaggression, or subtle form of unconscious bias that is a major focus of Sue's research (see Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions').
Sue also plans to watch for the appearance of another microaggressive phenomenon his research has found: that white people hold minority and female leaders to higher standards than they do white male leaders.
"All studies indicate that you have to be a super minority to achieve what you achieve, and that when you achieve it, the standards are much higher," he notes.
On the plus side, Sue posits that as Americans get a regular dose of the Obamas—at least via TV and the Web—bias may fall, in accord with research showing that having intimate contact with those different from us and receiving accurate information in place of stereotypes can help dispel prejudice.
For people of color, the Obama presidency is clearly a cause for hope and pride, Sue adds. That said, he is concerned about what may happen when reality sets in and people realize that some of the inequities that existed before Obama took office—in education, health care and employment, for example—remain.
"Barack Obama is a symbol of what this nation could be, but it would be unfair to place all of the responsibility on one person," he says. "That responsibility resides with all of us."