Researchers Lightened President Obama’s Skin — and Here’s What Happened

Making President Obama’s skin color lighter or darker influences people’s political opinions, says a new study. (Photo courtesy of Robb Willer, PhD)

Back in 2009 when President Obama first took office, the tea party political movement rose in prominence in the United States. One theory for the emergence of the growing group of conservatives protesting the federal government was that it was sparked by the election of an African-American president, coupled with an expanding minority population.

According to Robb Willer, a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, the theory held that the rise of minorities in social standing threatened white Americans’ sense of national standing and “these individuals saw the tea party as a movement to restore their standing,” he tells Yahoo Beauty. “That’s a pretty controversial idea, and we wanted to subject it to rigorous test.”

In Willer’s recently published paper, he and his colleagues do just that. As one part of the online-based study of 1,329 people, Willer showed white subjects a photo of President Obama where his skin had either been lightened or darkened to emphasize his African-American heritage. Those who saw the darker-skinned photo were far more likely to say they supported the tea party movement (22 percent) versus those who saw the lighter-skinned photo (12 percent).

In another part of Willer’s research, white subjects were told that their share of the population is declining in the United States and the country will be “majority minority” in 25 years. This increased both racial resentment and tea party support among the study’s participants.

Willer has been working with his colleagues for several years on this project and thinks it can help explain the current state of American politics. “We find consistent evidence that tea party support among white Americans is driven in part by feelings that the status of whiteness in America is under threat,” Willer says. “These threats trigger heightened levels of racial resentment and, in turn, support for the tea party.”

Can this explain the shocking support for controversial presidential candidate Donald Trump, who will be the GOP’s presidential nominee this election year? In a word, says Willer, yes. “It’s shocking to see a major party candidate receive so much popular support, despite a track record of controversial statements about various ethnic groups,” he explains. “However, it’s less surprising if you think of the tea party as a sort of historical bridge to the Trump candidacy.”

Willer emphasizes that the tea party’s platform was not explicitly prejudiced. “But our research shows that it pulled a great deal of its support from the racial resentment of white Americans who felt their position in the U.S. was under threat from other ethnic groups,” he explains.

Perhaps this is why Trump can push the envelope without damaging his platform, for example, “by loading his criticisms of U.S. immigration policy with more vitriolic language,” Willer says. “Donald Trump’s candidacy pulls support from much of the same base that the tea party did and has — and there is good reason to think that the psychological forces propelling tea party support also propel support for Trump’s candidacy. Indeed, Trump’s statements probably go further in criticizing minority groups than the tea party did.”

The effect of lighter skin may branch outside of politics too. Magazines and brands have recently come under fire for lightening the skin of black celebrities like Kerry Washington, Beyoncé, and Lupita Nyong’o in editorial spreads and advertisements — much to the confusion of consumers. Willer says his new “research is broadly consistent with a larger body of work showing that people have more positive views of lighter skinned African-Americans.”

Sadly, in 2016, the impact of skin color still matters — at least on a subconscious level — and may be creating a huge ripple effect all around us.

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