Is a pro-Romney ad racist? Five questions to ask yourself

Our Index of Racist Potential measures the degree that a political ad has the potential to evoke – consciously or unconsciously – voters’ stereotypical attitudes about people of color, regardless of the intent of the candidate or campaign team. To determine whether a political ad this presidential election season would score on the higher end (more racist) of our index, ask yourself these five sets of questions.

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2. Does the ad show a Obama's image alongside a racial stereotype?

Does the ad feature an image of President Obama alongside a stereotype reference? This is an important sign because the image serves as a cue. It tells the viewer not only to associate the allegation of, say, criminality with President Obama, but with Barack Obama, who is black.

In the same ad mentioned in question No. 1, while featuring the image of a smiling Obama, the announcer says, “he also attacked Hillary Clinton with vicious lies.” This provides the opportunity to make the association: Obama, who is black, with “lying,” not to mention the descriptors “attacked” and “viciousness,” which also conjure the association with stereotypes of black aggression.

Clearly, criticisms that Romney and Obama have and will continue to exchange are standard political fare. What makes pro-Romney ads potentially racist is that Obama is black and, like it or not, some criticisms may align with widely held stereotypes about African-Americans. The same is not true of Romney.

For instance, while the Obama campaign might charge that Romney is a felon – a strong attack to be sure – there is no historical association between whites – as a group – and criminality. That association is present with respect to blacks, however. Thus, the message functions as a stereotype, not merely a criticism of one individual.

Of course, there are plenty of grounds that allow Romney to criticize Obama without potentially racist associations. What if Romney charged – as he has – that Obama has not delivered tangible results on the economy as he promised, that he does not understand how the economy works, or that he is short sighted about how upper-income tax cuts today might negatively impact the future economy? What if he called Obama indecisive, aloof, or too inexperienced? None of these criticisms strike a responsive chord with any prevailing racial stereotypes about blacks.

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