Posted on January 9, 2009

You May Be More Racist Than You Think, Study Says

Elizabeth Landau, CNN, January 8, 2009


A new study published Thursday in the journal Science suggests many people unconsciously harbor racist attitudes, even though they see themselves as tolerant and egalitarian.

“This study, and a lot of research in social psychology, suggests that there are still really a lot of negative associations with blacks,” said Kerry Kawakami, associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Ontario, and lead author of the study. “People are willing to tolerate racism and not stand up against it.”

The authors divided 120 non-black participants into the roles of “experiencers” and “forecasters.” The “experiencers” were placed in a room with a white person and a black person, who played out pre-arranged scenarios for the experiment. The scenarios began when the black role-player bumped the white role-player’s knee when leaving the room.

In the first scenario, the white person did not comment afterwards. In the “moderate” case, the white person said, “Typical, I hate it when black people do that,” after the black person left the room. In the “extreme” case, the white person remarked, “Clumsy n****r.”

The “forecasters,” meanwhile, predicted how they would feel in these situations.


“Even using that most extreme comment didn’t lead people to be particularly upset,” said co-author Elizabeth Dunn, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Immediately afterwards, the participants were asked to choose either the black person or the white person as a partner for an anagram test. More than half of experiencers chose the white partner–regardless of the severity of the comment that person made earlier. As for the forecasters, less than half chose the white partner when a comment was made, but most chose the white person when no comment was made.


Regarding racism, in a famous study from the 1930s, people behaved in a non-racist manner that contradicted what they reported later. Richard LaPiere sent a Chinese couple to restaurants and hotels in the U.S., and most of these establishments accommodated them. But when LaPiere contacted the same places about whether they serve Chinese people, most said they did not.

More recent work by Greenwald and colleagues shows that most people–between 75 and 80 percent–have implicit, non-overt prejudices against blacks. Their Web site, Project Implicit, has a slew of tests that Web users can take to compare their self-perceptions to their underlying attitudes about people based on different social categories, such as race, age and obesity.

What is responsible for these attitudes? Experts say one culprit is images in television, news and film that portray blacks in a negative light.


Parents can also have a big influence, experts say. Related work by Dunn shows that if parents have positive attitudes towards blacks, and they have good relationships with their children, then the children will develop more positive attitudes towards blacks too.

[Editor’s Note: “Mispredicting Affective and Behavioral Responses to Racism,” by Kerry Kawakami et al., can be read or downloaded here. There is a charge.]

Science January 9, 2009

Vol. 323. no. 5911, pp. 276–278

DOI: 10.1126/science.1164951

Contemporary race relations are marked by an apparent paradox: Overt prejudice is strongly condemned, yet acts of blatant racism still frequently occur. We propose that one reason for this inconsistency is that people misunderstand how they would feel and behave after witnessing racism. The present research demonstrates that although people predicted that they would be very upset by a racist act, when people actually experienced this event they showed relatively little emotional distress. Furthermore, people overestimated the degree to which a racist comment would provoke social rejection of the racist. These findings suggest that racism may persevere in part because people who anticipate feeling upset and believe that they will take action may actually respond with indifference when faced with an act of racism.

1 Department of Psychology, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3.

2 Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z4.

3 Department of Psychology, Yale University, 2 Hillhouse Avenue, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520–8205, USA.

* To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected]