Every campaign season has nauseating moments, but this is a standout: An anti-Obama bumper sticker which has gone viral—and which warns voters not to “Re-Nig” this time around. Forbes managed to get an interview with the sticker’s vendor, who made the incredible claim that her product is not racist. “According to the dictionary [the N word] does not mean black,” said Paula Smith of Hinesville, Georgia. “It means a low down, lazy, sorry, low down person.” (It’s not clear which dictionary she had in mind—most major dictionaries define the word as a derogatory reference to a black or dark-skinned person, and Webster’s calls it “perhaps the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English” and “a word expressive of racial hatred and bigotry.”) Is there any way to explain Smith’s statement?
Using tests that can reliably gauge subjects’ attitudes on sensitive topics, researchers have often found gaps between professed racial attitudes and responses to tests that measure prejudice. A 2001 paper found that many survey respondents—including those who did not express prejudice against African-Americans before the experiment was conducted—nonetheless tended to prefer traditionally “white” names to traditionally “black” ones. And a 1997 paper found that “the pattern of results across studies is that absolute levels of prejudice are revealed in our implicit task [i.e., measurement], but these disappear when participants complete an explicit task that permits the assessment of whether they demonstrate prejudice in any absolute sense […] It may be that all participants are motivated to portray themselves as more egalitarian and unprejudiced than their implicit reactions suggest.” To be sure, researchers tend to caution that negative implicit reactions may not necessarily be caused by prejudice; there are any number of reasons why an experimental subject reacts a certain way to various prompts. Of course, this is all (literally) academic. In this case, there’s no complex psychological inconsistency between self-reported attitudes and possibly-prejudiced implicit attitudes. The sticker is plainly racist, and the bigot peddling it (who says, in her own defense, “I’ve helped black families…to guide them in the right direction”) is simply an audacious liar.