The President's Initiative on Race

Presentation to the Race Advisory Board
Dr. John Dovidio
As we have heard earlier today, blatant and overt forms of racism have dramatically declined over time.

We have seen this evidence in nationwide surveys and polls. More Whites than ever before are accepting of Black leaders; fewer Whites than ever before are describing people of color openly in terms of negative stereotypes.

We have seen the success of laws, such as the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s and the affirmative action in the 1970s, change what is right and wrong in America, and transform what America believes is fair and moral and ideal.

However, despite this significant decrease in the old-fashioned, overt form of racism, contemporary forms of bias continue to adversely affect the well-being of African Americans and other people of color.

What is this contemporary racism?

This contemporary form of bias is subtle rather than overt. Although it is expressed in subtle ways, its consequences can be significant.

This contemporary form of bias is rooted in normal psychological processes. For example, the mere categorization of people into groups -- into ingroups and outgroups, We's and They's -- is sufficient to initiate bias in which we value members of our own group more and value members of outgroups less. This categorization can be automatic and instantaneous, based on what we see. What we see are race and sex, reflecting two of our most pervasive forms of bias.

This contemporary form of bias is typically unconscious and unintentional. Many of the people who exhibit this type of bias truly endorse, at a conscious level, principles of fairness and equality. But because of these normal processes they often develop these negative feelings, which they are unaware of and try to reject.

As a consequence, this contemporary form of bias is typically expressed in subtle and indirect ways, in situations in which right or wrong are not clearly defined or in situations in which people can justify or rationalize a negative response on the basis of some factor other than race.

And finally, in contrast to the old-fashioned form of racism, this contemporary form of bias is expressed more strongly toward higher status minorities, who threaten directly or symbolically, the traditional social status relationship that has benefitted Whites.

We have accumulated substantial evidence documenting the operation of this subtle, contemporary form of bias. It is expressed more in terms of a failure to help minorities rather than in actions that directly harm others. For example, our research demonstrates that, across a range of situations from donating time to intervening in life-threatening situations, Whites are less likely to help minorities than Whites when they can justify not helping with a non-racial explanation, such as the belief that someone else will surely help.

It is expressed more in terms of a pro-White bias. It is not the old-fashioned belief in the inferiority of people of color -- which is obviously bigoted -- but what persists is an implicit belief in White superiority.

It is expressed commonly in spontaneous decision-making -- decision-making under stress or time pressure -- or in our nonverbal rather than verbal behaviors

And we see evidence of it in the archival data that reveals the glass ceiling through which minorities and women cannot penetrate to achieve true equality. The disparities that exist between men and women and between Whites and minorities -- in private industry, in the military, and in the government -- tend to increase with higher levels of status for these groups.

Again, although these biases may be expressed subtly, their consequences can be severe.

Like the old-fashioned racism, contemporary forms of racism present

barriers to employment and advancement. Minorities may be seen as good, but not quite as good as Whites (even when their "objective" qualifications are comparable). This effect occurs primarily when the decisions are difficult and complicated -- which characterizes most personnel decisions.

Contemporary forms of racism help to create divergent perspectives between Whites and minorities. Because it is expressed unintentionally and unconsciously, Whites are blind to their own biases. They don't see it anywhere. Because it is so subtle, people of color become very sensitive to its potential operation and develop distrust in Whites.

Thus, race relations in America become characterized by denial and distrust.

What can be done to combat contemporary racism? We cannot use the traditional technique of educating these people that racism is bad. These people already know that, and they believe that they are not racist.

The solutions, which are the challenges, are these:

It is necessary to make people aware of these subtle biases and help them understand how they operate. Just because bias is unconscious does not mean that it is unchangeable. It can be changed by making the unconscious conscious and then working hard to "break the prejudice habit."

We need to accept the validity of our divergent perspectives. We need to recognize that two people, or two groups of people, with different histories, experiences, and expectations will look at the same events and see them quite differently. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong; one rational, the other irrational. If we understand how modern racism operates, we can see the validity of both perspectives. Until we see that validity, we cannot begin the open and constructive dialogue that must form the foundation of any initiative on race.

And finally, we need to have pro-active policies, rather than reactive or passive policies. Reactive policies (e.g., those that simply punish proven instances of discrimination) are too late -- too much has to be undone before any positive action can be taken. Passive policies that rely on people's good intentions are not enough; contemporary biases are expressed largely unintentionally. It is therefore necessary to structure programs and policies that make people and organizations accountable for their actions, provide accurate assessment of patterns of bias, and initiate action to eliminate biases without necessarily demonstrating intentionality or eliminating all other possible explanations.

In summary, contemporary racism is largely unconscious and unintentional; is expressed in subtle and indirect ways; yet is significantly and adversely affects the well being of people of color, and thus the well-being of us all.

Because of these subtle, contemporary biases the "playing field is not level"; as history (and now psychology) demonstrates, it is not a problem that will go away if we simply ignore it.

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