Capital Ideas Blog

Fifty years on, are we still racist?

By Alice G. Walton
July 02, 2014

From: Blog


With 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this summer, it's hard to believe that the country is in any way still racist—after all, the US has a mixed-race president in office and African-Americans fill high-visibility positions in business, academia, and politics. But a number of studies have shown that racism is still very much present in the country, and happening on a level well below the "radar" of our consciousness. Still, there's some good news: becoming aware of prejudicial tendencies may be the first step in reversing them. 

Some of the latest research has shown that our perceptions of race are highly dependent on what's going on around us. Take, for example, a new study from NYU finding that people show more prejudice under tough economic times: The researchers set up conditions in which the participants were primed to envision a poor economy by flashing words like "sparse" or "limited" for a split second—these participants were then asked to rate pictures of mixed-race individuals as black or white. The people who'd been primed for poor economic conditions rated mixed-race faces as "blacker" than when they'd been primed with neutral words. And when the team went out in the real world, asking white college students in New york City how they'd divvy up money between a picture of a black person and one of an ambiguous/mixed-race person, they consistently shorted the black person and awarded more money to the person whose race was unclear. 

This is depressing, of course, but perhaps not so surprising, based on other findings that we tend to favor people in our own "group," and exclude those who appear as "other." In fact, researchers at Booth have shown that we respond differently during unsettled political times, just like unsettled economic times. Eugene Caruso's research has found that both white and black participants tend to gravitate to a "whiter" ideal in an unstable political climate, but that the situation is somewhat different when the political seas are calmer. And when evaluating mixed-race political candidates, his research has suggested that people rate them as being "whiter" when their own political beliefs are in alignment with the candidates'. 

But take heart. Though much of this is likely going on below the level of consciousness, Devin Pope's research has found that there's a lot of value to bringing these issues into consciousness. When people are made aware of their racist tendencies, this may be enough to help correct for it. Pope found this the case for NBA referees, and it may well be true for other areas of professional and personal life as well.

These studies are just a couple of examples of the race research that's going on at Booth. But if you want more, here's an in-depth feature on the work being done at Booth. Exploring the issue isn't always easy, since it forces us to come to grips with some unpleasant realities. but becoming aware of it is definitely the first step in addressing it.

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