Is it Racism or Politics as Usual?

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton | February 3, 2012 | 0 comments

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton explains what a new study on racial bias means for the presidential election.

In the news recently we saw more evidence of discrimination under our seemingly egalitarian noses: A forthcoming study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies shows that lawyers are about twice as likely to steer black debtors filing for bankruptcy towards the harsher Chapter 13 than they are for other filers, who they are more likely to steer toward Chapter 7.

It is critical to note that in their analysis, the researchers found evidence of the bias even with identical financial cases, and even when accounting for other potential explanatory factors such as debtor assets.

This <em>Vogue</em> magazine cover elicited accusations of racism—hard to prove with a sample size of one. This Vogue magazine cover elicited accusations of racism--hard to prove with a sample size of one.

The findings are not easily dismissed, particularly when they occur with regularity in different arenas. As I’ve reported before, black coaches in the NBA are more likely to be fired earlier than their white counterparts; and as my colleagues and I discuss in our book Are We Born Racist, even umpires—who are paid to be impartial—are more likely to treat players differently as a function of race.

Another critical thing to note is this quote from one of the authors of the bankruptcy study: “I don’t think there is any overt conspiracy.”

So what gives? Here the researchers have uncovered evidence of systematic bias against one group, yet the authors say that there is no systematic intent? How can that be?

An underlying theme in all of these instances is that when individuals—be they lawyers or team owners—explain their behavior, they can justify it as having to do with something other than discrimination. A coach is fired because of a losing record, the team owner says; a given person is steered towards Chapter 13 because of his/her financial situation, the lawyer says.

It’s hard to argue against such arguments from individuals. But when you amass the data the patterns emerge, and they tell us this: When people harbor unconscious stereotypes or racist attitudes, negative environmental circumstances allow people to express prejudice covertly. In this way, modern prejudice “leaks out” in ways that allow people to be prejudiced without having to admit to themselves or others that race plays any part.

But this points to a conundrum about how and whether we interpret negative behavior directed at a specific person. I’ve written before about discrimination toward LeBron James. The problem is that while we are able to have a critical mass of minority vs. white coaches or black vs. white filers in bankruptcy, there is only one LeBron James, so the group-level data needed to reveal bias trends is missing.

The same is true with President Obama. Because we do not have a critical mass of black vs. white U.S. presidents, we cannot conclusively argue that anger and vitriol directed at the president is racially motivated. But the brewings of a storm are in the air: negative environmental circumstances in the form of a strong recession, job woes for many, and troubled financial markets—and, of course, an election season where negative attacks are the norm. As The New York TimesCharles Blow notes, racist rhetoric is already being cheered on as principled argument in the Republican primaries.

My concern for the 2012 election cycle is not just negativity, but ramped up hate and downright incivility (remember “You Lie!” in Obama’s first State of the Union address?) veiled as politics as usual. And even worse, because there hasn’t been another non-white president, people will still be able to deny that racism is part of the post-Obama American landscape—and in the process, we’ll continue to see them deny that many minorities experience disenfranchisement as a result of such rhetoric.

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About The Author

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, a member of Greater Good's editorial board, and the co-editor of the Greater Good book, Are We Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. This piece originally appeared on his Psychology Today blog, Are We Born Racist?.


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