Smart Enough to Know Better: Intelligence Is Not a Remedy for Racism

Science Daily, August 11, 2013

Smart people are just as racist as their less intelligent peers–they’re just better at concealing their prejudice, according to a University of Michigan study.

“High-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes and more likely to say they support racial integration in principle,” said Geoffrey Wodtke, a doctoral candidate in sociology. “But they are no more likely than lower-ability whites to support open housing laws and are less likely to support school busing and affirmative action programs.”

Wodtke will present his findings at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health, supported his research.

He analyzed data on the racial attitudes of more than 20,000 white respondents from the nationally representative General Social Survey. He examined how their cognitive ability, as measured by a widely used test of verbal intelligence, was linked with their attitudes about African-Americans, and about different policies designed to redress racial segregation and discrimination.


Among Wodtke’s findings:

–High-ability whites were more likely than low-ability whites to reject residential segregation and to support school integration in principle, and they were more likely to acknowledge racial discrimination in the workplace. But there were only trivial differences across cognitive ability levels in support for policies designed to realize racial equality in practice.

–In some cases, more intelligent whites were actually less likely to support remedial policies for racial inequality. For example, about 27 percent of the least intelligent whites supported school busing programs, compared with 23 percent of the most intelligent whites.

“The principle-policy paradox is much more pronounced among high-ability whites than among low-ability whites,” said Wodtke, who is also affiliated with the Population Studies Center at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “There’s a disconnect between the attitudes intelligent whites support in principle and their attitudes toward policies designed to realize racial equality in practice.

“Intelligent whites give more enlightened responses than less intelligent whites to questions about their attitudes, but their responses to questions about actual policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination are far less enlightened. For example, although nearly all whites with advanced cognitive abilities say that ‘whites have no right to segregate their neighborhoods,’ nearly half of this group remains content to allow prejudicial real estate practices to continue unencumbered by open housing laws.”

According to Wodtke, the broader implication of this study is that racism and prejudice don’t simply come about as a result of low mental capacities or deficiencies in socialization. Rather, they result from the need of dominant groups to legitimize and protect their privileged social position within an intergroup conflict over resources.


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