Quick Hit: “Racism without Racists”

Nicholas Kristof

The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama’s support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That’s significant but surmountable.

Most of the lost votes aren’t those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.

Loads of interesting stuff (and horrifying statistics) there about the power of unconscious prejudice. Definitely worth a read for those who think that if you don’t actively hate people of color, your behavior can’t be called racist.

41 thoughts on “Quick Hit: “Racism without Racists”

  1. I can totally agree with the findings. Coming from the South I grew up around racists there weren’t “racist”. Hell, I was even taught it. I remember speaking to my (black/African American) college instructor about it one day…that people just don’t realize how it permeates everything, kids pick it up without even realizing it. I have tried very very hard to get rid of that mentality once I realized it was there. It has been very difficult, but I would like to think I am overcoming what was programmed into me.

  2. All I need now to make sense of that is a clear definition of what a “racist” is. How do they determine, exactly, that about 10% of the electorate is “racist”? It strikes me that very few people who have racist tendencies are likely to self identify.

  3. Al, a test of attitudes could probably be set up without too much difficulty. Most overtly racist people don’t think they’re racist because “those people really are like that”, not because they don’t admit to racist attitudes. They would argue that they were realists, not racists, which has the nice side-effect of making them unashamed enough for them to be picked out fairly readily.

  4. This article hits really close to home for me, because I’m pretty sure my parents fall under this category of “lost” Obama votes. Ever since the primary season, when my mother professed that she wasn’t going to vote for Obama because he had a “scary face” and “looked untrustworthy and suspicious”, I’ve been wary of her unintentional racist ideas about him.

    We had an argument about it last week, in which she insisted that she wasn’t racist and I tried to get her to understand that just because she doesn’t walk around declaring all black people as inferior, doesn’t mean she has no inherent prejudice. I tried to couch it as a problem with her learned behavior, not her as a person, but I just wasn’t able to get past her knee-jerk reaction of “but I’m NOT a racist!”

    Partially this is her individual problem, since over the years I’ve noticed that she is the most defensive person I know (somehow she manages to make my FA stance all about me attacking her). However, I think the “but don’t you see I’M NOT RACIST” attitude is a part of this larger problem with Obama losing votes — it’s very difficult to get through to anyone who has decided (for unconscious racist reasons) not to vote for Obama, because no one is going to want to see themselves as a “racist who won’t vote for a black guy”. I’m sure, as the article says, their “doubts tend to be attributed not to the person’s race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience.” I’m also sure that they are, like my mother, unwilling or unable to admit that they probably wouldn’t have those same doubts were Obama white.

  5. It strikes me that very few people who have racist tendencies are likely to self identify.

    That’s kind of the point — 10% of people DO self-identify as racists, or at least as people who wouldn’t vote for a black president and aren’t ashamed to admit it, whether they’d proudly call themselves “racist” or not. (That would be my grandpa, if he were alive.) Then there are in-between folks left out of this discussion, who are actively racist but know better than to admit it in public — to a large extent, the people Tapetum’s talking about. (See also, my stepmom.) But then there are the people Kristof is talking about — ones who are sincerely anti-racist in theory, but still have major unconscious biases, as shown by the studies he mentions and things like the IAT. (My dad on the end of the spectrum closer to active racism, you and me on the end farther away.)

    Yeah, there’s probably no reliable way to officially tell the difference between the second and third groups there. But based on my own anecdata, the three different groups are definitely real.

  6. I’ve occasionally argued that one of the hoped-for outcomes of affirmative action is exactly to knock unconscious prejudice on the head by making counterexamples common enough and visible enough that one’s instinctive mental image of “the right person for the job” becomes much more fuzzy.

  7. Slightly Useless Comment:

    There is a bias-testing type program you can do online. It’s done as part of an ongoing experiment out of a uni in the US. It divides the screen up with, say, “male” on one side and “female” on the other, and then asks you to sort words that are MOST associated with that category. Then it asks you to sort the same words as though least associated, and then it flips the categories and has you do it again.

    I’m probably not explaining it well, but I’m hoping my explanation will ping someone else’s memory to bring it up.

  8. Damn it! Yes, that IAT thing that Kate’s linking to her comment. *headdesk* Sorry, Kate – Reading is essential!

  9. I used to think that if everyone stopped being actively racist that racism would completely disappear, and then I took a Woman’s Studies class and learned about privledge and institiutional racism. And I was mad, on a level that could only be described as seething with repressed rage for several months. I was so pissed off about everything I was seeing around me, and with thinking about where I could have been if I had not been born a woman in 1980, where my mother could have been had she not been born a woman in 1950, where my friends and loved ones could be if society did not actively minimize their contributions. *Writing this is bringing it back a little, ack*

    I don’t know that I had a point that dovetails here very well. The other day I was having a conversation with my mother and she said that she would respect Obama more if he were “more black.” I told her that was a racist statement, and that she didn’t have the right to say how black people in any capacity should act. She told me that I was ageist for not supporting McCain, it was all very civil, but sad.

  10. It really kills me that people judge Obama on the basis of race, but they do. Our country has not gotten rid of racism, it has merely become less overt (although there are many instances of overt racism, there are far more people who are unconsciously racist).

    I am glad, however, that even in the face of racism Obama is still up in the polls.

    Obama/Biden ’08!

  11. I think my boss might be in the category of people Kristoff is writing about. She’s a highly intelligent woman, whose also fairly liberal as a general rule, but she says she’s just not sure she feels like she “knows” Obama well enough to vote for him. It makes me wonder what’s really behind that.

  12. Yeah, this is sad but sadly believable.

    I think it’s also interesting how class plays out in all this. How about the charges that Obama is pretentious and out of touch? I don’t hear people telling Sarah Palin or Joe Biden or John McCain they’re out of touch with regular people–and, regardless, Obama’s track record is all about community organization, being in touch with the people. To me, the subtext of this is not very subtle at all–it’s something along the lines of: “Who does this [black] guy think he is?”

    I think in some ways, Palin’s winking and dropping of “g”s, her folksiness, is a direct play off of the racist assertion that Obama is an elitist. I see reverse-classism being used in this campaign as a cover for racism.

  13. Recently I came to head with a family member over this issue – only it wasn’t about the color of his skin – it was about the rumor of him being Muslim. This same family member has taught me from a very young age to not be racist despite parents that tried very much to indoctrinate my young mind into hate based on skin color and she is blinded with fear of a man that is rumored to be Muslim and when I tell her that it is just a rumor and that he has denied it several times, she says well I just don’t believe him.

    You can imagine how hard she fell off the pedestal.

    It’s that kind of racism that I’m seeing more with this campaign than the skin color issue. In our post 9/11 world anti-Muslim is the socially acceptable racism.

    Sad yes. But true.

  14. April, I’d remind you that all racism is still socially acceptable in way too many circles and institutions. (See Rule 11, which is not exactly on point here but lays out the blog policy on discussions of “acceptable prejudice.”)

    Having said that, I totally take your point about anti-Muslim sentiment coming from people you wouldn’t have expected it from.

  15. You are absolutely right, my apologies. I was writing in a hurry and not really thinking about what I said. I meant it more along the lines of coming from people that wouldn’t discriminate against skin color. Thanks for the correction though, I’ll take more time to think about my words next time. :)

  16. I think it’s also worth pointing to the Harvard Implicit Association Test, which is designed to measure unconscious bias. You can take a number of sample tests relating to race, skin tone, disability and gender. It looks like they’ve even added a new Obama-McCain test. The results can be a bit disturbing. I was surprised to discover that I harbor gender biases, for example.

  17. I have taken a few of those IATs, and I think they’re fascinating… but I always feel like I’m taking a hand-eye coordination test rather than an association test! Or maybe a right-handedness test. I just wonder how they control for physical factors in the test setup.

  18. I also feel like once I found out what the test was for I started overcompensating on a subconscious level. And I don’t think I ever took them before I knew what they were for, so I wonder how skewed my results are. :-)

  19. I’m dealing with this on another message board I visit. We are getting anons out of the woodwork who keep trotting out the myths about Obama being Muslim, despite them being debunked at snopes, because they refuse to believe he is “one of us.” (And I’m biracial too, so it irks me even more to hear this crap).

    I told my grandfather, that more than likely he will not get votes from certain sections in the South and Midwest due to his skin color. But it seems that this election, predjudice is coming from everywhere, including places we think are the most liberal and accepting. It says a lot about what people are really thinking and feeling and to be quite honest, a lot of it is scary.

  20. more than likely he will not get votes from certain sections in the South and Midwest due to his skin color. But it seems that this election, predjudice is coming from everywhere…

    Ah, but just remember that this all started in Iowa! (says the proud Iowan) I do think you’re right, but I think (as in the case of Iowa) the other side of that coin is also true: that some places where we’d expect to see more prejudice (because of homogeneity of the population, for example), we see less.

  21. Sweet Machine, I’ve tried to take some of the IATs several times and not been able to, because I have physical and mild neurological impairments that make the keystrokes required difficult at best. So, since my impairments really aren’t all that bad — I can type readily enough, after all, if not rapidly — I’ve concluded that they didn’t consider these aspects at all. Which, while I’m not surprised, I do find painfully ironic. And, come to think of it, a pretty good example of the main topic of this post, because I’m reasonably certain that it wasn’t at all deliberate, it just never occurred to anyone involved that the design of those portions of the tests that require coordinated keystrokes was ableist.

  22. I felt that too, Sweet Machine.

    But on the ones I really had trouble with, I could feel my brain stuggling to make the correct connection. I felt like I learned the most about my prejudices by comparing that feeling to what I felt while taking the tests for which I had a good idea of the outcome.

  23. I have taken a few of those IATs, and I think they’re fascinating… but I always feel like I’m taking a hand-eye coordination test rather than an association test! Or maybe a right-handedness test. I just wonder how they control for physical factors in the test setup.

    Sweet Machine – The thing is that the IAT was (like most social psychological measures) developed to test groups of people, not individuals. If you have a whole group of subjects you counterbalance what you pair with what, and that takes care of the hand-eye coordination issue (and other things). Regardless, I think what is important is that the majority of white people do associate black people more strongly with negative things and less strongly with positive things than white people . (By the way – black people do the same thing in reverse, although to a lesser degree. I think it is important to acknowledge that while at the same time keeping in mind who is the group in power, because the biases of a group in power will always have more serious consequences.)

    And for those of you who wonder how to overcome unconscious biases: If you realize you have negative automatic thoughts concerning a specific group (and sometimes you do realize) don’t suppress the thoughts – if you do, there is the danger of a rebound effect. Instead, look for positive counter-examples. It’s something that takes a lot of time and energy – I find it scary how often I catch myself at negatively stereotyping the members of certain groups (and the fact that I probably don’t always catch myself makes it more scary). But while I am not sure that we can totally get rid of those biases we can certainly make them weaker. (Sorry, couldn’t resist showing my social psych education ;o)

  24. And I don’t think I ever took them before I knew what they were for, so I wonder how skewed my results are.

    From what I understand, the idea of the IAT is that it isn’t affected by whether or not you know what it’s for or not, which I think has something to do with how fast they make you go (also, I mean, it is called the Implicit Bias test, presumably the assume a lot of people will figure it out from the title). This is a convenient feature of measuring implicit bias that they can’t always get with tests of other sorts of bias.

    So, since my impairments really aren’t all that bad — I can type readily enough, after all, if not rapidly — I’ve concluded that they didn’t consider these aspects at all.

    While they probably didn’t because it is something too few people take into account (including me too often–trying to work on that one for sure), even if they had I’m not sure what they could have done differently for someone in your situation, since part of the (supposed) ability of the test to find implicit bias comes from the fast pace. There may be other valuable tests that can take place at a slower speed, but those wouldn’t be measuring the same things (again, from my limited understanding of how these tests work; if anyone has contradicting info please do offer it up! but to my knowledge, there isn’t a version of the implicit association test that can be done at a slower pace and achieve its goals the way IAT proponents say the tests can).

    Thanks for the article, Kate–while it feels a little “NO SHIT, SHERLOCK” to me I realize this is in fact news to a lot of people, especially people who don’t spend their time interrogating their psych major friends for fun :) Definitely gonna save that link to use next time I hear “but the FREE MARKET will CURE DISCRIMINATION!”

  25. I’m very liberal and hate racism am voting for Obama, and also know that I have subtle racist tendencies…

    I’m so happy that Obama may be president that I cry when I see him and his family together…

    I long for the day when our children won’t have the subtle racism I recognize and hate in myself.

    I don’t believe anyone in this society is completely free of racism.

  26. I’ve just done the race IAT and I think it’s bullshit. By the time that they switched everything around, I was so accustomed to the previous order that it was no wonder I made more mistakes! And that applied to both words and pictures, so I don’t really think it told me anything about myself. Which is sort of sad because I was interested in the results …

  27. Those IATs are interesting. They showed that I have a slight automatic preference for fat people. That surprises even me. Despite my interest in FA, I assumed that I’d have an automatic preference for thin people, since that seems to be the norm in our society.

    I also have an automatic preference for Obama, a preference that also made me automatically associate him with being an American while having no such association for McCain.

  28. Since I am British, I have no vote in all this, but the comment someone made upthread about McCain and ageism made me wonder: is it ageism to think that someone in his early seventies might be getting to the point where taking on the leadership of (arguably still) the most powerful country in the world, for four years, might not be the wisest idea, policies, personality, running mate and race aside? Am I out of line in thinking that? Biased by years of dealing with elderly relatives? Or is it a valid viewpoint?

  29. @ Allison:

    It is actually thought by some people that it isn’t about trying to get McCain in office but Palin. I have heard of some actually wishing that McCain would get elected, then die so Palin could take over.

    IF that IS the case, then it would make sense.

  30. is it ageism to think that someone in his early seventies might be getting to the point where taking on the leadership of (arguably still) the most powerful country in the world, for four years, might not be the wisest idea, policies, personality, running mate and race aside?

    That’s a tough question. Certainly, there are plenty of people McCain’s age who are healthy, sharp as tacks, and will likely remain so for some time. But statistically speaking, there’s a much greater chance that something major could go wrong with his physical or mental health in the next 8 years than Obama’s, and I don’t think it’s ageist to acknowledge that — especially when the next in line for the presidency would be wildly underqualified.

    McCain’s a year younger than my dad, so I do cringe a bit when people talk like he’s on death’s door just because he’s over 70. McCain’s mother’s still kicking at 96, so he’s got good genes on one side, at least. And as much as McCain makes me go “WTF?” on pretty much a daily basis, I don’t think it’s because he’s senile — I think it’s because he’s an asshole. So yeah, I would say it’s ageist to act as if he’s a doddering fool or has one foot in the grave — but I’d also say it’s merely realistic to acknowledge that a man in his seventies is far more likely than a man in his forties to have a health crisis and/or deteriorate mentally in the next 8 years.

  31. Not to mention McCain’s melanomas, plural. I don’t think he’s remotely senile — out of touch, maybe, fucked in the head, yes, but not senile. But considering his phenomenally incompetent running mate, you betcha I think his age and especially his health are relevant.

  32. So yeah, I would say it’s ageist to act as if he’s a doddering fool or has one foot in the grave — but I’d also say it’s merely realistic to acknowledge that a man in his seventies is far more likely than a man in his forties to have a health crisis and/or deteriorate mentally in the next 8 years.

    This is what I think, too. It also seems likely that if he were likely to suffer from certain conditions that causes cognitive impairment, he’d have started showing signs of it already. So yeah, my take is that assuming he’s senile just because he’s in his 70s is ageist–but wondering if his health status is likely to deteriorate while he’s in office is not.

  33. Wow, I got replies from all 3 siteowners! This is my five minutes of fame!
    Personally, I think it’s largely a matter of biology. All four of my and my husband’s parents are still alive, and are aged between 77 and 84, and certainly none of them would have the physical stamina to hold down a demanding job, mental capabilities aside (I quite fancy the idea of my 82 year old mum as world leader – she’d do a better job than lots of them); and most of them became a lot less active pretty soon after the age of 75, sadly. I just don’t see how it can be sensible for someone to step into such a gruelling role at that stage of life, even if they were highly suitable otherwise.
    I move in reasonably conservative circles in England – middle class, middle aged – and I haven’t had a single conversation with anyone who can begin to get their heads round how the McCain/Palin team could begin to be taken seriously. Everyone I’ve talked to just thinks it’s terrifying.

  34. Alison S — I find that in Australia, too; everyone I’ve read or seen is unanimous in being utterly flabbergasted by what’s coming out of the US these days.

    I can’t vote, obviously, but it’s pretty clear to me that the world at large, if it could, would vote Obama, because this is just … insane. WTF, America? I knew you were that country run by crazy dictatorial fundamentalists trying to kill the rest of us — but seriously? Seriously, you pride yourself on being the Great Democratic Experiment and you’re actually arriving at the possibility of becoming a theocratic fascist state for real? WTF???

    I can’t wrap my head around it either.

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