Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

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Image from the ACLU

As this election reaches the lowest depths of hell, I, like many Americans, find myself sucked into the black hole of election coverage. Last night, I was researching an obviously false internet claim from a #stillbernie bro about Bernie winning as many votes as Hillary in the primaries, and I found this statistic from Pew Research Center:

“While Bernie Sanders (50 percent) edged out Hillary Clinton (48 percent) among white voters overall, 77 percent of black Democratic primary voters chose Clinton.”

From a social psychology perspective, this explains so much to me about what I’ve been seeing on my own social media feeds for months. Bernie did win more votes than Hillary…among white people. Many white people see that a lot of their white friends voted for Bernie and he didn’t win, so obviously something is up. In general, people are prone to the false-consensus bias, which leads them to believe that their opinions, values and actions are largely shared and approved of by others.1 And it doesn’t help that we largely surround ourselves with people who are similar to us and share our beliefs anyway.2 But the electorate is not just made up of white people. Clinton crushed Bernie among African-Americans with 77% of the vote. That’s a resounding defeat. An unequivocal statement. Black Americans clearly chose Clinton. This isn’t a history blog, so we won’t deep dive into America’s ugly track record with civil rights, stretching back to slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, up to present day as 5 states have active law suits alleging minority voter intimidation and suppression by the Republican party during this very election (Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). But, suffice it to say, attempting to downplay the legitimacy of the black vote is not a good look, and, you know, is fundamentally opposed to the ideals of our democracy. White people claiming their voices are being systematically stifled in an American election is laughable at best, and downright insulting at worst.

Which white people on my news feeds have been as passionate about the ongoing voter suppression of black citizens as they were about Bernie’s defeat in the “rigged” primaries? I have yet to see one. I haven’t really seen much among white people in general, because white people associate with other white people, at work, on the internet, at their polling places. They don’t necessarily have significant exposure to issues facing marginalized groups, and therefore they don’t have significant exposure to those groups’ opinions about said issues. The fact is, white people often grow up in predominantly white neighborhoods and go to predominantly white schools. They rarely, if ever, experience race-related discrimination, and the absence of that discrimination creates a space to deny its very existence. For many white Americans, black suffering is not that visible. There are 1,080,000 Google search results for “black voter suppression” and 475,000 Google search results for “Bernie Sanders voter suppression.” One of these issues began in 1619, the other began 9 months ago. Talk about unbalanced media coverage.

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Image from the New York Times

Bernie supporters were quick to point to his past as a civil rights protestor and Hillary’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill as reasons that black Americans should vote for Bernie. Yet, black citizens overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Bernie, making it obvious that white democratic voters may be out of touch with what matters to democrats as a group. Such divides even spawned articles telling people to stop Bernie-splaining to black Americans. Gordan Allport’s Contact Hypothesis suggests that the best way to reduce intergroup prejudice and encourage understanding is for people from both groups to have contact with one another.3 The groups have to have positive contact, work toward a common goal, have equal status, cooperate with one another, have the support of the community at large and actually spend a good amount of time getting to know one another for it to actually work. Why don’t a lot of protest-voting white Americans see that many others have a great deal at stake under a Trump presidency? A lot of it may come down to who they have contact with. Without meaningful intergroup contact, it may be impossible for us to understand the experiences of people outside of our own circles.

Yes, Hillary Clinton barely lost the white vote in the primaries, but to ignore the fact that she garnered the majority of the minority vote among African and Hispanic or Latino Americans is to ignore that Clinton definitively won the primary among American democrats as a whole. She just didn’t win among white democrats. But elections are decided by who shows up to cast their ballot, not whichever race has traditionally held power in a country. When elections don’t go our way, it doesn’t mean that they are rigged. To assume that the average white voter reflects the larger concerns of the American electorate is to assume too much in the 21st century. Black Americans have told us in no uncertain terms that they back Clinton, and they always have. And black votes matter.

  1. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology13(3), 279-301.
  2. Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology62(3), 713.
  3. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence. On the nature of prejudice50, 262-277.

Minority Influence: Why Black Lives Matter Matters

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Image from Socially Urban

Minorities are a paradoxical thing. Even though they are composed of a small amount of people, they can have incredible influence. Many major advancements and legal movements have been spear-headed by minorities, ranging from the followers of Copernicus spreading the word of heliocentrism, to teetotalers advocating for alcohol prohibition, and ultimately amending the constitution, in the U.S.. Few great achievements come without challenge, and equal treatment for black citizens under the law appears to be one of those things. We know from history that small groups of people can accomplish big things, which is why it’s important to keep the Black Lives Matter movement alive for change to occur in penal and legal overreach.

For decades, social psychologists have studied minority influence, which, as you may have guessed, is the capacity for a small group of people with an unpopular opinion to change beliefs.1,2 In any given social issue, the dominant group, or those in power, have the most social influence over the target population, the people the group is hoping to influence. But minority groups gain traction by challenging the dominant group, presenting themselves as innovative alternatives to the status quo.3 Research has largely found that opinion change caused by the majority is often temporary and public, whereas opinion changes caused by the minority are indirect and persistent.4,5,6 Majorities inspire public conformity, but minorities foster true attitude change. Unfortunately, privately held opinions don’t help to propel minority movements, but they may be a better reflection of where someone will allocate his or her voting power, alone in a cubicle in an elementary school gym.

In addition to being influential, people who are in minority groups are liked by others. One study planted minority influencers in teams over the course of a 10 week study, and found that teams with members that advocated for the minority position improved their divergent thinking and came up with more original products than control groups without a minority influencer.7 Minority influencers were also given higher ratings by peers, indicating that group members valued the minority contributions.7 Since we know that groupthink can lead to terrible decision-making, it is not that surprising that team members would value teammates who help to point out potential pitfalls. However, it is surprising that those minority members were better liked than people who shared the majority opinion, giving us hope that social change doesn’t have to equal social conflict.

Interrupting Bernie Sanders’ Seattle campaign event earlier this month may have been controversial, but it has helped to keep the Black Lives Matter movement in the news. Only once there is enough tension will the dominant group be forced to answer to the movement, and Black Lives Matter is obviously fueled by passionate, young people who are willing to be persistent in changing attitudes. Research does indicate that Black Lives Matter may benefit from a more centralized operating structure, as consistency of the message of the group, as well as the confidence with which attempts are made to convey the message, are important factors for influencing majority members.8

Individually, we can all do our part to open our minds and hearts to the message of minority movements, and allow ourselves to be guided by the evidence at hand over political dogma. The Black Lives Matter movement has already had an incredible influence on the political climate of the 2016 election. As long as they continue to challenge the status quo with consistency and credibility, attitude change is all but inevitable.

  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1984). Hidden impact of minorities: Fifteen years of minority influence research. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 428.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Lage, E. (1976). Studies in social influence III: Majority versus minority influence in a group. European Journal of Social Psychology, 6(2), 149-174.
  1. Mugny, G., & Pérez, J. A. (1991). The social psychology of minority influence. Cambridge University Press.
  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1983). Internalization versus compliance: Differential processes underlying minority influence and conformity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 13(3), 197-215.
  1. Nemeth, C. J. (1986). Differential contributions of majority and minority influence. Psychological review, 93(1), 23.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Personnaz, B. (1980). Studies in social influence: V. Minority influence and conversion behavior in a perceptual task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(3), 270-282.
  1. Dyne, L., & Saavedra, R. (1996). A naturalistic minority influence experiment: Effects on divergent thinking, conflict and originality in work‐groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35(1), 151-167.
  1. Nemeth, C., & Wachtler, J. (1974). Creating the perceptions of consistency and confidence: A necessary condition for minority influence. Sociometry, 529-540.