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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How We React to Racism

In discussing last week's shooting at the Holocaust Museum, Charles Blow's latest NYT column cites a recent study that deserves our attention if we, as a society, are truly committed to addressing racism.

In this study, authors Kerry Kawakami, Elizabeth Dunn, Francine Karmali, and John Dovidio sought to examine the extent to which folks' attitudes about racism aligned with their actions.  To this end, the study first assigned participants to one of two groups:  "experiencers" (some of whom were exposed to others' racist behavior firsthand) or "forecasters" (who did not witness any racist conduct first-hand, but some of whom were presented with a detailed description of such behavior and then asked to predict their reactions).  Each group also included a set of control subjects who were not exposed to any racist conduct.

More specifically, some of the experiencers were exposed to racist actions while they thought they were still waiting for the study to begin:  a black researcher bumps into a white researcher while leaving the room, after which the white researcher makes a racist comment (ranging from "I hate it when black people do that " to "clumsy [n-word]").  When the black researcher returns, the subject is asked to choose one of the two researchers as a partner in an upcoming exercise. 

Only 17% of the "forecasters" predicted that they would choose the white researcher if confronted with such behavior, compared to 68% of forecasters who were presented with a scenario that included no racist conduct. 

In contrast, sixty-three percent of the experiencers who actually witnessed the racist comment first-hand nonetheless chose the white researcher as their partner, compared to 53% of experiencers who were exposed to no such comment.

The authors conclude that "although people anticipate feeling upset and taking action upon witnessing a racist act against an out-group, they actually respond with indifference. . . .  [D]espite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions, one reason why racism and discrimination remain so prevalent in society may be that people do not respond to overt acts of racism in the way that they anticipate:  they fail to censure others who transgress these egalitarian norms.  These findings provide important information on actual responses to racism that can help create personal awareness and inform interventions, thereby helping people to be as egalitarian as they think they will be."

Blow put it even more starkly: "[G]ood, decent people are by far the majority, and we dare not be silent. There can be no family too close and no friend too dear for hatred to go unchecked. Allowing it to do so diminishes the better, more noble parts of ourselves."

Posted by Helen Norton on June 17, 2009 at 05:34 PM | Permalink

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Comments

"[D]espite current egalitarian cultural norms and apparent good intentions, one reason why racism and discrimination remain so prevalent in society may be that people do not respond to overt acts of racism in the way that they anticipate: they fail to censure others who transgress these egalitarian norms."

At the heart of the idea of civil rights and seeking an end to racism is the idea that we are all responsible for each other as human beings, and should all be treated equally. This idea of radical equality evolved out of religious ideas (see many of Dr. Martin Luther King's addresses, for instance). Our legal system, at least in the 20th century, has revolved around the idea that "[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." (Casey, of course.) Though these two may not seem incompatible, the latter statement is individualistic, and a statement of the "hedonistic consequentialism" (to borrow a phrase used by John Haldane)so inherent in Western thought and now, in culture. How could one hope that we care for one another by standing up to racism, when law and culture demand equally that we care only for our own growth and definition of mystery?

Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 17, 2009 8:18:46 PM

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