This article is by Clayton Critcher, an assistant professor of marketing, cognitive science, and psychology at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
In his majority opinion that struck down the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Our country has changed,” essentially stating that the 1965 civil rights legislation was outdated. But the recent racist rants of Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy have had some wondering just how far we have actually come.
What these episodes may most clearly illustrate is how difficult it is to gauge the prevalence of racism in modern America. Do Sterling and Bundy reflect a widespread racism that typically resides just outside of the limelight, or does the swiftness with which the NBA and Republican Party distanced themselves from these pariahs reinforce Roberts’ claim?
University of Chicago professor Jane Risen and I, recognizing that the racial climate is difficult to assess, set out to understand what guides people’s beliefs. After all, it matters whether you see modern America as a nation plagued by racism or as one where equal opportunity is real. It affects how you make sense of why racial disparities persist (and thus what, if anything, you think can be done about them).
We found that when non-blacks were exposed to African-American success stories—tales of those who defied the odds, like Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier, Brown University President Ruth Simmons, and even President Obama—they became less sympathetic to more average African-Americans, without even realizing it. They unknowingly reasoned, “If he can do it, so can they.”
Risen and I conducted eight experiments with both college undergraduates and non-students. We had participants complete a supposedly unrelated task before expressing their opinion about why racial disparities persist in modern America. In the first part, participants answered numerous questions like, “Which of the two men shown below do you think is famous author John Grisham?” For some participants, one or two of these questions involved especially successful African-Americans. These key questions appeared straightforward (e.g., “Which of the two men shown below is the CEO of Merck?), but their true purpose was to subtly inform participants (through the provided pictures) that a particular high-level position was occupied by an African-American. As a control, other participants were asked only about whites.
Participants who had been exposed to the counterstereotypical examples of African-American success were more likely to blame blacks for persisting racial disparities. But when we later asked whether being exposed to these exemplars had changed their beliefs about race in America, our non-black participants denied it (inaccurately). That is, exposure to the exemplars changed their beliefs without their realizing it. What’s more, they became just as unsympathetic to African-Americans even when it was highlighted that the exemplar’s success story was an exception (e.g., “Which person is Kenneth Frazier, the only African-American CEO of a Fortune 75 company?”). Thus, people don’t assume racism is on the decline because they believe African-American success is typical; they need only appreciate that such success is possible.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Michigan’s ban on affirmative action makes it clear that states can choose for themselves whether to permit or ban active attempts to address racial inequality. What our work highlights is how much that contentious choice will be influenced on an unconscious level, without these questions being considered or debated explicitly, and even without people’s awareness. Those advocating most strongly that the Sterlings and Bundys of the world be banished from the public arena may do well to remember that a selective focus on the success stories of racial progress may be the surest way to lose public sympathy concerning racial inequality.
The research findings discussed here can be found in “If He Can Do It, So Can They: Exposure to Counterstereotypically Successful Exemplars Prompts Automatic Inferences,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology(March 2014) and co-authored by Jane L. Risen, University of Chicago, Booth School of Business.
You can find the original article here