Closet Bigotry

Washington Post, July 31

Not that many decades ago it was easier to identify bigots: Just listen to them. In those bad old days, people felt free to say all sorts of ghastly things. But in these supposedly more enlightened times, a new study suggests that even racists have learned to keep their toxic opinions mostly to themselves.

In fact, whites with more negative views of blacks and minorities are more likely than those with more racially tolerant attitudes to go out of their way to appear friendly and open-minded when interacting with African Americans, according to a team of psychologists led by Jennifer Richeson of Dartmouth College and Nicole Shelton of Princeton University.

This faux friendliness has a startling consequence: These researchers found that blacks would rather interact with less tolerant individuals than those with more accepting views, which “could lead blacks to make the unfortunate decision to avoid future contact with low-prejudiced whites,” the psychologists wrote in the latest issue of Psychological Science.

Their work is the latest twist on one of the hottest recent findings in the study of race relations. Last year, two Canadian researchers reported that more racially prejudiced individuals appear to be more careful about what they said and acted more friendly and warm in conversations with blacks than people with lower levels of racial bias.

Richeson and Shelton wondered if those efforts to appear friendly have any impact on blacks. So they recruited 96 college students and gave them a test measuring how racially biased they were. Then each was told they would have a brief 10-minute conversation with another participant, and then answer a few questions about the interaction. Some students were assigned to be in mixed-race pairs, others were paired with someone of their own race.

To mask the intent of the study, each pair of students was told to select a topic for their conversation from a basket. In fact, all of the topics were the same: “Discuss your opinions on race relations.”

When these researchers analyzed the answers to the post-conversation questions, she found that more intolerant whites were perceived by blacks as friendlier and more engaged in the conversation. Moreover, they found that blacks reported they would be more willing to spend time with these whites than more accepting whites.

The results underscore the increasing difficulty blacks and whites have in finding their way through the minefield of race relations. “It may be necessary for whites to appear engaged during interracial interactions, irrespective of their levels of racial bias,” Richeson and Shelton wrote in their article. And for blacks, it illustrates “that detecting who is and is not prejudiced against one’s group during brief social interactions can be quite difficult.”

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