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Reggie Miller for President, or who can look presidential

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | February 23, 2011

This past weekend, I had a couple of friends over to watch the NBA’s All-Star Saturday show. I literally screamed (and scared my little son, I think) watching Demar Derozan’s dunk, which should go down as one of the best all-time dunks, and was literally lost in the Blake Griffin hoopla. The grace and force of that dunk — entirely one-handed! — was spectacular.

As we ate pizza, joked around, and watched the show, the camera panned over the commentators, which included Marv Albert and Reggie Miller. One of my friends remarked “Wow, look at Reggie Miller! What a great posture. He’s looking very presidential.”

Everyone nodded, and then we kept watching. The moment passed. But the comment stayed with me.

Reggie Miller’s posture was, in fact, perfect, and he was dressed very sharply in a suit. One can understand where my friend was coming from; maybe he was reacting to the similarities between Reggie Miller and Barack Obama. Miller is tall, like Obama, thin, like Obama… and African American, like Obama.

As predicted in Susan Fiske’s wonderful essay “Are We Born Racist?” that gave this book its name, the great rhetoric that America had become “post-racial” after the election of Obama has given way to the reality of continuing discrimination in this country. From UCSD’s Compton Cookout to comments by Dr. Laura, Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his home, there is and continues to be plenty of reason to lose hope.

But here, in my friend’s comment, I found one reason to hold on to hope. At least in this one little instance, one person had spontaneously called an African American man presidential! Not exactly earth-shaking, I know, but it is a great reminder of why it is so critical to have diversity in positions of leadership. It’s not just about appearances — it changes attitudes.

A study published in 2004 by Nilanjana Dasgupta and Shaki Asgari in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology illustrates this point. The researchers tracked female students at two colleges — one a co-educational college, and the other an all-women’s college. The researchers measured the participant’s gender attitudes at the beginning of their first year in college, and found, as expected, that the participants overall had a a hard time associating “woman” with the concept of “leader,” and conversely, a much easier time associating “men” with this same concept. Interestingly, this bias was true both for the women who had chosen the women’s college and the co-ed college.

The researchers measured the automatic attitudes of the women in the fall semester of their second year. One year later, the female students in the co-ed college had even MORE trouble associating the concept of woman with the concept of leader — but that bias had totally disappeared for the women in the women’s college — they were as quick to associate the concept of “leader” with women as with men. Furthermore, the researchers found that the amount of exposure that people had had to female faculty accounted for the attitudinal shifts. This means that being exposed to actual people in positions of leadership can — and does — change people’s automatic attitudes about who can and cannot be in those positions in the first place.

Which brings us back to Barack Obama. As an African American man in a very visible position of leadership, Obama, however slowly, is widening the pool of people that people can say, “wow, that person looks presidential!” about. It doesn’t mean we are post racial, but it does give us a glimmer of hope, even if progress is so much more modest than many of us would like it to be.

Now, if only we could get people to more easily associate “woman” with “president” as well, as I have written about in this blog post…  Cheryl Miller for President, anyone?

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Cross-posted from Psychology Today.