Bad news and good news about racial prejudice



President Obama speaking in Chicago last Friday. Bias against blacks has increased since his election in 2008.
  • AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
  • President Obama speaking in Chicago last Friday. Bias against blacks has increased since his election in 2008.
I sometimes hear from readers that discrimination against blacks, though lamentable, is largely a thing of the past. The readers who say this inevitably are white.

It's true that bias against African-Americans is less overt now than 40 years ago, when blacks moving into white neighborhoods were greeted with bricks through their picture windows. But studies indicate that prejudice today is swimming below the placid surface. And it's a short step from bias to discrimination.

In February, a fair housing group reported the results of its testing of real estate practices in Westchester County, a sprawling, affluent area in New York. The county, which is racially diverse but deeply segregated, signed a desegregation settlement three years ago. The fair housing group sent trained "testers"—black, white, and Hispanic—to real estate offices in search of housing. The black and Hispanic testers were discriminated against in 40 percent of the 90 tests and treated equally in 48 percent; 12 percent of the tests were inconclusive.

The unequal treatment often included the steering of black and Hispanic housing seekers to black and Hispanic areas. "Discrimination is not always blatant," the housing group's report observed. "It can manifest itself in ways that are more elusive and less quantifiable, yet just as distressing and diminishing of self-respect."

In October, an Associated Press poll found that in the four years since Barack Obama was elected president, prejudice against blacks had increased slightly, with 51 percent of Americans expressing such bias, up from 48 percent in 2008. The researchers who conducted the survey for the AP—from Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago—also tested for implicit, or unconscious, racial bias, using questions that didn't focus directly on race. Implicit prejudice against blacks had likewise increased, and a majority of Democrats as well as Republicans had antiblack feelings.

Evidence for the persistence of bias against blacks was also in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers found that African-Americans who looked more stereotypically black—darker skin, broader nose, fuller lips—were more likely to be rejected or excluded by whites than blacks who looked less stereotypically black.

One experiment conducted by these researchers involved Facebook "friending." Photos of a black man and a black woman were Photoshopped to make them appear either more or less stereotypically black. Fictitious Facebook profiles were created for "Michael Davis" and "Jennifer Davis," and 1,400 Facebook users in one large U.S. city got friend requests from one of them: "I'm new to Facebook. Working on putting up my info!" White Facebook users were significantly more likely to accept as a friend the Michael or Jennifer Davis who appeared less stereotypically black than the ones who looked more black. Another Facebook experiment by the researchers and a survey they conducted of residents of a college dorm yielded similar results.

Previous research had underscored the anxiety African-Americans experience regarding social interactions with nonblacks "based on fears of rejection and stigmatization," noted the study's authors, who were from Rice and Emory University and the University of British Columbia. "The present research suggests that such fears may not be unfounded." African-Americans who look more stereotypically black "are even more likely to experience this rejection," the authors wrote.

A "distressing implication" of the findings, the authors added, was "the role they may play in perpetuating cycles of intergroup avoidance and segregation."

But in the same issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology there was reason for hope. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin reported on an intervention they'd developed to combat implicit racial bias.

Implicit biases are powerful "precisely because people lack personal awareness of them," the authors observed. Presuming that this kind of prejudice is "a habit that can be broken," the researchers first presented the intervention group with information on the prevalence of implicit biases and on how they work. Then they offered strategies for countering stereotypical responses—such as taking the perspective, in the first person, of the member of a stereotyped group, and seeking opportunities to engage in positive interactions with out-group members.

The 12-week study showed "dramatic reductions" in the prejudice of those who received the intervention. There was no reduction in bias in a control group whose subjects were given no education or training about stereotypes.

Among the observations of those in the intervention group while they were in the study:

"I was riding the bus and an older black gentleman sat in the seat next to me. I was about to sit closer to the wall but then realized that this was a stereotypical response and stayed where I was."

"I had to go get a drug test for my new job. While I was in the clinic a black woman walked up to the desk and the receptionist assumed she was there for a drug test also. I thought that was stereotyping on her part and I was right. The woman was there because she was injured at work."

The researchers wrote that their data "provide evidence demonstrating the power of the conscious mind to intentionally deploy strategies to overcome implicit bias. As such, these findings raise the hope of solving a problem that has long vexed social scientists—how to reduce race-based discrimination."

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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