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.

5. Is the audience where the ad runs mostly white?

Are whites the majority constituency where the ad is run? The demographics of a targeted audience can automatically color code “us” and “them” as white versus black, respectively. Having an intended majority audience that is white helps an ad define “us” (whites) and distinguish “us” from “them” (those, including the candidate of color, who embody negative, stereotypical character traits).

Determining the audience for an ad run in presidential contests can be complicated (we rarely know where an ad is being run). But were the ad mentioned earlier (“we good and decent Americas”) aired in a place like Iowa, “us” in the ad could likely be interpreted by viewers – consciously or not – as “whites” in a racial context, given that the vast majority of the population there is white.

Data collected over many years by the Harvard Implicit project demonstrates convincingly that most people automatically associate being “like us” with those who share the same visible physical traits. And a recent poll reported on in the Washington Post demonstrated: “Whites living in communities with few or no African Americans are more apt to express uneasiness [about African Americans] than those in more diverse communities.”

Thus, while airing an ad for a majority white audience does not guarantee voters will be seduced by a potentially racist message, their being white makes that more likely.

Charlton McIlwain is associate professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. Stephen M. Caliendo is professor of political science at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. They are the authors of “Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns.”

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