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

In the presidential election, it’s not a matter of whether racism will appear in campaign messaging, but when. President Obama is running for reelection with the support of the majority of black and Latino voters. Mitt Romney is challenging Mr. Obama with an almost exclusively white constituency behind him. Both candidates will raise and spend unprecedented amounts of money on political advertisements, as will their respective parties and allied super PACs.

A crucial question is: How will we know when pro-Romney ads are potentially racist? It’s not always so easy to recognize.

Reasonable people will disagree about whether an ad appeals to race in an innocuous or outright racist way. This is why we developed the Index of Racist Potential. It is based on the content of more than 1,000 political advertisements we analyzed that were sponsored by candidates in federal election contests from 1972 through 2006 and that included at least one candidate of color (black or Latino). The index measures the degree that a given 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.

From the ads we analyzed, we found that black candidates certainly “use” race (directly or indirectly) in their ads, but they don’t reinforce widely held negative racial stereotypes about whites or flame fear of minorities. In other words, “race” may be present in the ad, but that presence isn’t “racist.”

Our index is based on the presence or absence of fairly objective content that appears in an ad. To determine whether a television or Web ad this presidential election season would score on the higher end (more racist) of our index, ask yourself these five sets of questions.

1. Does the ad reference racial stereotypes?

This frame grab from a recent Romney campaign ad accuses President Obama of dishonesty. To determine a political ad's potential racism, op-ed contributors Charlton McIlwain and Stephen M. Caliendo suggest viewers ask themselves questions such as this: 'Does the ad reference a longstanding racial stereotype historically associated with African-Americans?'

Does the ad reference a longstanding racial stereotype historically associated with African-Americans? Does it state or suggest that President Obama is untrustworthy or prone toward criminality? Does it imply that he takes advantage of the system or is lazy?

A recent ad from the Romney campaign, for instance, has the effect of presenting the untrustworthiness stereotype, calling Obama’s statements “not true,” and “misleading.” Then the ad goes a step beyond, by saying, “but that’s Barack Obama,” that is, the kind of person who misleads and says things that are not true.

The political ads we watched when compiling our index featured these kinds of racial stereotypes most frequently. But any stereotype reference increases the likelihood that the ad in question will draw out viewers’ negative associations with people of color. And while charges of criminality, untrustworthiness, and the like are standard attacks on white candidates, there is no stereotype associating whites, as a group, with criminality, untrustworthiness, freeloading, or laziness, so the potential effect is not the same.

But stereotype references in political ads can be subtle, and thus other additional features can make the stereotype more salient to viewers.

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