The University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy held an event on the intersection between race, media and political attitudes Thursday afternoon, with a presentation from Mara Cecilia Ostfeld, an assistant professor of political science.

Ostfeld first addressed a decline in implicit racial stereotypes in favor of explicit racial generalization in political advertising. She said the public has become increasingly more accepting of explicit racism in messaging from political campaigns. 

“The first (reason) is that the two parties have become more cleanly sorted along lines of racial attitudes, and we saw this very clearly in the last election,” Ostfeld said. “The other dynamic is that there has been a lot more tension in recent years over the fact that white Americans are a shrinking share of the U.S. population, and that’s made the white identity much more salient and much more important to a lot of white Americans.”

Ostfeld then discussed how political messaging could advance progressive or action-oriented agenda to address racial disparities. She explained a study put forth by scholar Ian Haney Lopez, a professor of public law at the University of California, Berkeley, which found that a significant percentage of the U.S. population believes racial disparities are real and need to be addressed but are not sure about government policy to help racial inequities. 

Osfeld said Lopez researched what types of public messages would force this persuadable part of the population to endorse progressive racial policies. 

“He argues that it is important to not ignore differences, but highlight that most of us want pretty similar things even with those differences in mind,” Ostfeld said. “He argues that we should focus on aspiration, common experiences and shared interests.”

Participating students, faculty and staff then discussed the implications of these concepts in U.S. public policy following Ostfeld’s remarks. Stephanie Sanders, Ford School diversity and inclusion officer, facilitated the conversation among event attendees.

Business graduate student Zoe Feng said it can be difficult to address specific demographics and also remain inclusive. 

“If you have a really diverse group of audiences, it feels challenging because you don’t want to leave out certain races,” Feng said. 

Ostfeld said it can additionally be challenging to be both specific and inclusive because different communities prefer different forms of racial labels and identification. She said Lopez never explicitly addressed how to include all racial groups and identities, but she laid out a general strategy.

“He said (that) weaving in different groups, even if you don’t say them all at once, throughout the conversation you’re having, so that no one group is constantly the focus but others are also represented and included,” Ostfeld said.

Ostfeld went on to discuss how political parties have taken people of color for granted in past campaign outreaches.

“There’s the concern that a lot of people of color are very tired of being painted as an assumed Democratic vote,” Ostfeld said. “I think we’re seeing people really wanting to push back against that, because it results in parties and candidates not really putting as much effort into campaigning or doing outreach for black folks as they do among suburban white women and working-class whites.” 

Associate Public Policy professor Ann Lin further commented on shortcomings in campaign outreach. She critiqued micro-targeting strategies, in which campaigns use data from social media to target specific audiences and their interests, because she said these strategies do not engage their audiences. 

“I think what they’re trying to do is say that they have all this data on you, but it still comes across as high-resolution stereotypes in some ways,” Lin said. “I think the focus of campaigns has shifted too much into trying to buy voters, and too far away from just trying to sell ideas. Don’t try to tell me who you think I am, tell me what you’re trying to do.” 

In response to Lin, Ostfeld said use of these “high-resolution stereotypes” fails to actually communicate tangible policy goals to minority communities.

“I would argue that there needs to be more of an investment towards actually communicating policy in that outreach, especially to communities of color, because it is often very thin and superficial,” Ostfeld said. “And I think that turns off a lot of people, and there’s less capacity to hold them accountable.”

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