Monday, April 6, 2009

A review of The Race Card

This book was somewhat of a cross between an easy read and a research book. The main point of the book is that if there is an implicit appeal to race, that type of appeal will be far more effective in activating stereotypes than an explicit appeal to race. As an example, the author uses Willie Horton and the 1998 election. In this example, the image of Willie Horton was talked about simultaneously with issues of crime and poverty. Never was it mentioned that Horton was black, however the pictures were shown and the message was conveyed implicitly.
In truth, Mendelberg is examining political communication. She’s examining what implicit communication about race, by elites to the public, is about. She concludes that implicit racial appeals activate racial stereotypes, resentments and fear. The author declares that these factors shape our decisions when they are least discussed – by implicit appeals. This is a way for the elite to activate norms and beliefs in the voters regarding race, without having the voters recognize or respond negatively.
Mendelberg’s view of political communication is top-down. She sees the communication being done by the elites to the masses. This coincides with the views of Zaller, who also believes that the elites drive communication. However, both of these points of view do not indicate how the racial stereotypes were conceived in the first place. Rather, they assume that the stereotypes are driven from the top down, and will continue to be driven from the top down because it is the elites who benefit from keeping the stereotypes alive so that they can use them in implicit communication appeals.
This also ties neatly with Lakoff. Implicit communications, using key words or images, can be used to activate one family structure or the other, and then depending on which structure is activated, the person responds differently to the message. In Mendelberg’s view, the implicit racial appeals are activating the strict father model – with the attendant fear, resentment and “protect myself and my family from outsiders” feelings that she argues are activated with implicit racial appeals. However, on the flip side, when an explicit racial appeal is made, it seems to activate the nurturing parent model, where equality is key, because people react negatively to the explicit appeals.
Mendelberg sees these appeals as a harm to democracy. She views them as a slippery slope that can be used to argue gender or sexual orientation. Instead, she wants people to recognize the implicit appeal and react as negatively to it as they do to the explicit model. However, this type of implicit appeal almost seems to fall within the realm of heuristics – and there is some (slight) evidence to show that heuristics lead people to the same votes they would’ve made otherwise. What I mean is that an implicit appeal activates certain pathways and ways of thinking (according to Mendelberg). This is what happens in heuristics as well – a message, idea or concept activates a certain pathway of thoughts, that leads to a conclusion without the person ever having to think about it. So in some ways, implicit racial appeals are similar to heuristics. However, this doesn’t make the good, it simply links them to a shortcut.
However, does this really matter? Implicit racial appeals tend to be made on policy areas that the common people have very little, if anything, to do with. Most people do not get to vote on welfare, parole reform, prison spending, and other issues where implicit racial appeals can communicate a message. In fact, Mendelberg found that it is those who are most educated that are least likely to succumb to an implicit appeal. It is also those who are most educated that are likely to be involved in politics to such a degree as to make decisions on matters where race can communicate values, or where racial stereotypes matter. Therefore, if the people involved in the issues are the ones most likely to reject implicit racial appeals, does it matter that they are made?
Additionally, Mendelberg showed a fake newscast of a welfare reform proposal in order to evaluate the feelings about race in different people. The problem is, most people cannot separate their views on poverty and whether people should be self sufficient from race. If we were to examine this experiment using Lakoff’s models, then this experiment wouldn’t show anything about race relations, but would rather show which people on the panel are a strict-father type and which are the nurturing-parent type. I believe Lakoff wouldn’t have anything to say about race, but rather about how a person views the world. Also ,welfare reform is an issue where people have polarized racial opinions because there are very high numbers of African-Americans on welfare compared to all other races. Welfare reform isn’t an implicit racial appeal issue – the appeal is explicit due to the very nature of the subject. This might cause a conflation of opinions in the people who were interviewed and participated in the study.

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