Why racial prejudice persists

Yale psychologist John Dovidio has sobering news for those who believe that Americans now live in a post-racial society. Recent research by Dovidio and colleagues suggests that while whites and others who are not black believe they're free of prejudice, a substantial portion still harbor unconscious bias against blacks.

In research reported in Science on January 9, subjects surveyed about their attitudes predicted that they would shun a white man who directed a vicious racial slur against a black man. But other subjects drawn from the same demographics, who actually witnessed a white man making a racist remark, overwhelmingly allied themselves with the aggressor rather than with the black man he had maligned.

Dovidio and colleagues from York University and the University of British Columbia began by showing study subjects either a written account or a videotape of an incident in which a black man accidentally brushed against a white man's knee as the black man left a room, supposedly to retrieve his cell phone. Once the black man was gone, the white man either let the event pass without comment; said, "Typical. I hate it when black people do that"; or commented, "Clumsy nigger."

When the subjects were asked their reactions, most said that they were very upset by the latter remark. Then they were asked which of the two men they would choose as their partner for what they were told was an experiment in which pairs of subjects would complete word puzzles. The majority (75 percent who read about the event and 83 percent who watched the video) predicted that they would pair up with the black man. "They didn't want to have anything to do with that white person who made the racist slur," Dovidio says.

Things turned out differently when another group of subjects actually saw the incident acted out live. They reported experiencing little distress about the racist comments and, rather than ostracizing the white man who made the remarks, 71 percent chose him for a partner. More than half the 196 study participants were not white, but they were as likely as whites to prefer the white man over the black man. "Being from a victimized group didn't automatically make you more empathic," says Dovidio.

The study shows that our gut reactions often don't align with our ideals, he says. Intellectually, we affirm racial equality, and therefore "we're well practiced at denying these negative feelings." Dovidio says prejudice arises from social conditioning and from the tendency of Americans to associate power with whites, not blacks. Furthermore, humans naturally seek group solidarity, and in the United States, people define groups largely based on race.

Dovidio agrees with the recommendations of Columbia psychologist and education professor Derald Wing Sue, who studies unconscious racism. Sue suggests developing ties with people of other racial groups - preferably outside of the workplace, where rigid roles create boundaries - by, for instance, socializing, attending church together, and inviting each other home. "What you end up doing," as Dovidio puts it, "is bringing your gut in line with your mind."

Until that happens, he says, racism will persist. Recent research showed that half of black Americans feel the effects of bias during routine activities like shopping and eating out. Despite Barack Obama's victory, says Dovidio, "the fact is that for the vast majority of black Americans, their life next week is going to be the same as it was last October." 

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