Discrimination is not always black and white

Dr. Samuel Gaertner, a social psychologist, discusses how even the most well-meaning people can still be discriminatory.
Dr. Samuel Gaertner, a social psychologist, discusses how even the most well-meaning people can still be discriminatory.

By Dalton Karwacki

Well-intentioned people can discriminate against others without realizing they are doing so, said a speaker in the Bart Luedeke Center Theater Wednesday.

Dr. Samuel Gaertner, the director of social psychology at the University of Delaware, delivered the third annual Marvin W. Goldstein Lecture on Prejudice Reduction, entitled “Prejudice Among the Well Intentioned.” He said that, on an unconscious level, some people refuse to see that they are discriminatory. These people completely believe that they are not biased and try to live their lives as such, he said.

“The prejudice is hidden from themselves,” Gaertner said.  “It’s important to them to keep it that way because it challenges their cherished, genuine, egalitarian values.”

Gaertner explained how  people can experience racism  that they do not recognize. He discussed a type of racism first identified by psychoanalyst Joel Kovel, averse racism. This is a racism experienced by “well-intentioned people with liberal, egalitarian values.” These people, he said, discriminate in subtle ways that can be rationalized, preventing them from identifying the racism.

“The important dimension is that we want to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the kind of person that walks the walk,” Gaertner said.  “People will experience averse feelings towards minorities, anxiety, uneasiness, but not hatred.  Either that or they will simply feel more positive feelings toward whites than toward other groups.”

Gaertner said that there are generally three factors which contribute to averse racism: cognitive, motivational and cultural.
Cognitive, he said, refers to the fact that people have a tendency to remember details about members of their own group better than members of other groups, and people often remember more positive information about their own group.

“Once we categorize people into, for example, blacks and whites, there is a tendency to see within-group differences as being minimal,” Gaertner said. “We de-emphasize the differences and see more similarities.  The other group begins to look more alike than they really are, and we emphasize the differences between groups.”

Motivational factors, Gaertner said, refer to the idea that people tie their self-esteem to both their own accomplishments and those of the groups to which they belong. This tends to create self-serving biases to make their group seem more special. He illustrated this by pointing out that nobody in the crowd expected to be divorced, despite the fact that the divorce rate is over 50 percent in this country.

Cultural factors, he said, come down to reactions to status.  He said that there is generally a common social order, and people sometimes unconsciously react negatively when this order is changed.

“In our culture, whites usually have higher status and power than people of color,” Gaertner said. “Whites can get used to that. If you live your life that way, you might start to believe that it should be that way, and we might respond unfavorably when there is an attempt to change that.”

He said that the reason for some of these discriminatory actions was actually the determination to not discriminate.When people go into interactions with people of another race, they often do so with a concentration on not thinking bad thoughts, having bad feelings, or behaving improperly. This is a costly strategy, he said, because studies have shown that doing this can cause the feelings to return after the interaction, stronger than before.

He explained several studies that support these ideas, including one that he tied to liberal and conservative individuals. By self-report, he said, conservatives are often more prejudiced than liberals. He shared the results of a study from the ’70s he was involved in, which tested this result.

The study had either black or white people call liberals and conservatives, and pretend that they were trying to get in touch with a mechanic, as their car had broken down.  The person would say that he or she was out of change (this being before cell phones) and ask the subjects if they could call the mechanic. The study showed that liberals were more willing to help the black callers than conservatives were.

“Liberals didn’t discriminate against blacks relative to whites, in an amount that was statistically significant, relative to conservatives, with whom the difference of helping whites or blacks was reliably different,” Gaertner said.

Researchers kept track of people who hung up before learning about the situation.

“Liberals were more discriminatory in terms of hanging up prematurely than conservatives were. So, maybe they’re equally prejudiced, but they express it in different ways and in different situations.”

Gaertner concluded by discussing ways to counter these types of discrimination. The best way, he said, is to try to make people re-evaluate the way they group people. He said that getting people to group everyone into a single group (such as “people” as opposed to by race) or even as subsets of the same group as opposed to two completely different groups is an excellent way to decrease averse racism.  He said that this can be done through frequent contact under conditions of cooperation and equal status.

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