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Shooting the Messenger to Spite the Message?

August 5, 2013

By Jennifer Schultz and Keith Maddox (Tufts University)

“There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are probably very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”
– President Obama

President Obama, who often shies away from making racially charged statements, openingly discussed the racial climate of the United States after the verdict in the case involving the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American high school student. In the aftermath of President Obama’s speech, it is not difficult to understand why the President rarely makes statements regarding racial issues.  While some supported the President’s speech, there was also a considerable backlash against him on twitter, especially from a conservative audience. Emily Miller (Senior Editor of Opinion at the Washington times) tweeted: “Obama is the most irresponsible president in history. Now we’re having national debates about hypotheticals? #standyourground” Joe Pollak (editor-in-chief and in-house counsel for tweeted: “Obama: ‘Trayvon Could Have Been Me’  via @BreitbartNews Can we stop taking this demagogue seriously now? #evil #fail” These are only a few examples of the negative statements made against the President after his claims about the state of racial bias in the U.S.

Social psychological research on discrimination has shown that when individuals claim discrimination as a factor that influences their outcomes (i.e. job success), they are more likely to be derogated or evaluated negatively by others (Ashburn-Nardo, Morris, & Goodwin, 2008; Kaiser & Miller, 2001).   This bias is evident in the backlash following the President’s address. Our research aimed to examine the conditions under which such bias occurs and to find ways in which minority group members can persuade others to think about racial bias without experiencing negative evaluations from their peers.  Essentially, a claim of discrimination is an effort at persuasive communication.  The communicator is attempting to present information on which to base attitudes and actions. Our work suggests that messages about racial bias will be processed differently depending on the communicator’s race (if they are Black or White), how the message is conveyed (message strength or quality), and the recipient’s worldview beliefs (if they endorse the American Dream or not).

We tested the influence of these three variables in two experiments published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Schultz & Maddox, 2013).  In our experiments, participants watched pre-recorded speeches by Black or White individuals who discussed the prevalence of racial bias or who discussed a neutral (non-race-related topic).  The racial bias arguments focused on issues relevant on to living on the college campus where the experiments were conducted: Tufts University.  At Tufts, one of the housing options is to live in a culture house such as the Africana house, the LGBT house, the Latino house, etc.  Individuals are welcome to live in these houses or to just spend time studying and doing other activities with peers who have similar cultural or intellectual interests. In Experiment 1, White students listened to a speech about on the need for Tufts to have culture houses as a tool for helping minorities students thrive on campus. The speaker was either a Black or White individual, and the speech used either extreme or mild arguments. In Experiment 1, we found that Black individuals were viewed more negatively than White individuals (saying the exact same thing) when they used strong compared to mild arguments.  This experiment demonstrated that Black individuals are likely to be the recipients of backlash when they make strong claims about the existence and prevalence of racial bias.

In Experiment 2, we sought to mitigate backlash by manipulating the quality of the arguments presented by Black or White individuals.  We also examined characteristics of the people listening to the message, specifically, we examined the extent to which audience members endorsed the idea of a meritocracy, that is, beliefs that anyone can get ahead in life if they work at it regardless of group membership. We chose to examine meritocracy beliefs based on previous work indicating that individuals who endorse this ideology are more threatened by discrimination because it goes against their worldview beliefs (Major, Kaiser, O’Brien, & McCoy, 2007).

Once again, participants watched pre-recorded speeches, but this time the speeches varied in quality not strength. The high quality speech focused on how culture houses are a successful tool for promoting diversity at Tufts, whereas the low quality speech focused on how Culture houses were good for Tufts image to the outside world.

In Experiment 2, White participants evaluated Black communicators more negatively than White communicators only when the communicators used low quality arguments in their claims. Backlash toward the Black communicator was eliminated when communicators used high quality arguments.  Furthermore, participants who more strongly endorsed a meritocracy worldview were especially likely to show the pattern of backlash against the Black communicator who used low quality arguments relative to the Black communicator in the control condition. Overall, Experiment 2 supports the perspective that the audience’s worldview impacts their reception of the message and reactions to the communicator.

In both experiments, we demonstrated that Black individuals making claims of discrimination are more likely to be evaluated less favorably than White individuals making the very same claims.  This backlash suggests that it may be difficult for members of less advantaged groups to convince members of more advantaged groups to recognize their claims as legitimate.  Our work, however, points to some ways in which members of less advantaged groups can reduce the likelihood of backlash; specifically, when Black individuals used milder arguments or higher quality arguments in discussing discrimination, they were not viewed more negatively than White individuals making the same claims.  Furthermore, our work suggests that people who hold beliefs (e.g., meritocracy beliefs) that legitimize differences between groups in society are particularly likely to react negatively to claims of discrimination by members of less advantaged groups.  Although the example of President Obama’s communication about racial discrimination differs in many ways from the situations used in our experiments, our findings provide some context for the harsh reactions to his speech, especially from conservatives (who typically strongly endorse meritocracy beliefs).  This example also raises questions about other factors that would be intriguing to examine in future work such as “How does the power and status of the communicator influence audience members’ reactions?” and “How do prior attitudes toward a communicator influence listeners’ reactions?”

Author Information

SchultzJennifer Schultz is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Tufts University.  She is broadly interested in processes that reduce prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, especially within the context of interracial interactions. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb cccccccccccccccccccccccccccc dddddddddddddddddddddddddddd eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

MaddoxKeith Maddox, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University.   He is also the Director of the Tufts University Social Cognition (TUSC) Lab, examining social cognitive aspects of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.  Its research programs explore topics such as: cognitive representations and stereotypes of African Americans based on variation in skin tone and other phenotypic characteristics; how stereotypes and prejudice influence perceptions of the targets of discrimination; the role of social categories in spatial representation, and strategies to improve interracial interactions.


Ashburn-Nardo, L., Morris, K. A., & Goodwin, S. A. (2008). The confronting prejudiced responses (CPR) model: Applying CPR in organizations. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 7(3), 332-342. doi:10.5465/AMLE.2008.34251671

Kaiser, C. R., & Miller, C. T. (2001). Stop complaining! The social costs of making attributions to discrimination. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(2), 254–263. doi:10.1177/0146167201272010

Major, B., Kaiser, C. R., O’Brien, L. T. & McCoy, S. K. (2007).  Perceived discrimination as worldview threat or worldview confirmation: Implications for self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1068-1086. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1068

Schultz, J. R., & Maddox, K. B. (2013). Shooting the messenger to spite the message?  Exploring reactions to claims of racial bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(3), 346-358. doi: 10.1177/0146167212475223

Photo Credit:  President Barack Obama reads a document prior to a meeting in the Oval Office, Aug. 1, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza), from

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