Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Speaking of Obama

A number of talking heads addressing the subject of Obama's remarkable (knock on wood) and sudden political success have put substantial weight on the fact that he is an African. And in America's racial hierarchy, most white voters are likely to place him the the "immigrant" category rather than the "black" category. From the work of Paul Sniderman and others, we know that part of what makes it hard for blacks to win in state-wide races is the perception (and often the reality) that they are substantially more liberal than the median voter. This is based on the assumption that voters want to choose the candidate who is closer to their ideological preferences, but have to do so in the absence of ample, high-quality information for determining this within the time they are willing to invest in political decision-making. So they seek cues that will, with a high degree of certainty, allow them to match their preferences with that of the right candidate, with the least search costs. Race is one of these cues. This is why black state-wide candidates try to conflate these cues by throwing out seemingly confounding cues, such as military service or support for the death penalty. They have to do this because they are inevitably tagged with being at the median of publicly-known black officials, even before advertising by their opponents.

Obama has the advantage of being judged by what voters seem to think is the median ideological position of most immigrants, who voters (rightly or not) imagine are more entrepreneurial, less "race-conscious," etc. than blacks. In short, they imagine that he is to the right of the median of the black political class. The irony is that, while Obama clearly has a very different political style than most of the Congressional Black Caucus, all the evidence is that he will be one of the Senate's most liberal members. That is, he is benefitting from the stereotyping that Americans engage in when they think of immigrants (at least those with college degrees). We often think about stereotyping as something that is negative, and it is--if as an individual, your objective qualities are superior to the median perceived group average that constitutes the stereotype.

But what if the shoe is on the other foot? If your objective qualities are below the perceived group median, then you actually benefit by being stereotyped. Imagine that I am a low performing member of a high performing immigrant group (such as Japanese). In the absence of additional information, employers will assume that I am very hard working, quantitatively skilled, and unlikely to complain to my bosses. If I am in fact below the perceived Japanese median in all of these qualities, the presence of a "model minority stereotype" is an enormously beneficial group asset, one that it will be in my interest to play up at every opportunity. So this raises the question--what exactly is behind some Asians dislike of the "model minority stereotype?" Might we hypothesize that those who find it most distasteful are those whose objective characteristics are above the group median, and that these are the persons most likely to write and comment on such subjects?

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