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Harvard Study Links Google Searches to Racist Voting

Barack Obama American Flag Portrait - P 2012
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The study contends that "prejudice cost Obama between 3.1 and 5 percentage points of the national popular vote" in the 2008 election.

A study published by a Harvard PhD student on June 9 reveals new information about the effect of racism in voting trends. In his paper, The Effects of Racial Animus on a Black Presidential Candidate: Using Google Search Data to Find What Surveys Miss, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz concludes that “prejudice cost [president Barack] Obama between 3.1 percentage points and 5 percentage points of the national popular vote” in the 2008 election.

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Looking at Google searches of racially charged terms in an effort to examine the racial attitudes of people in a given area, Stephens-Davidowitz ranks all 50 states in order of their frequency of searches. Search terms included permutations of the n-word and accompanying language such as “jokes” or “I hate.” West Virginia and Louisiana returned the highest numbers of searches using the epithet, and Hawaii and Utah ranked last. Noting that the most common searches including the epithet “return websites with derogatory material about African-Americans,” Stephens-Davidowitz observes that the content on these sites is the sort that would not be spoken or written in proximity with minorities.

“The top hits for the top racially charged searches are nearly all textbook examples of antilocution, a majority group’s sharing stereotype-based jokes using coarse language outside a minority group’s presence.”

Beyond providing a more accurate gauge of racist attitudes in different states, the study highlights a potential problem which Obama may face in the upcoming presidential election: faced with animosity from a constituency that may be dissatisfied with his achievements in office, that 5 point percentage may mark the difference between victory and defeat. In comparison to the 2008 election, where Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote, the president faces an uphill battle in trying to convince the American public he is capable of solving polarizing economic and social issues. The percentage of voters whose decisions were influenced by racism only exacerbates Obama’s fight to stay in office for a second term.

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Stephens-Davidowitz wrote a piece for the New York Times June 9 touting the study and highlighting some of its conclusions. The most up-to-date version of his paper is available here.