Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Racism Metrics Among Americans

Once you read up on research by those who study racism, it is a little annoying when the term is applied too broadly especially as has been common over the past year both to individuals and institutions.

I always felt my father was racist but having come in contact with true racists while turning Durham, North Carolina’s image around in my past professional life, I now realize he wasn’t.

He was born in 1923 just as the first studies were launched to determine attitudes toward various groups among Americans.   Back then Americans readily expressed their racial prejudice.

But before I get into how prevalent racism was back then, let me touch on what was happening in America during my father’s formative years.

In fact, in the review of this research in the book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, the authors note that in the 1930s it “may have been as politically incorrect to express tolerance as it is to express intolerance” today.

Keep into mind that even into the 1930s Black Americans were being lynched at an average of fifty to one hundred per year.

Those occurred primarily in the South, but even in my father’s native Pacific Northwest, this was also the heyday of nativism which included a resurgence of groups such as the KKK.

Nativism was an anti-immigrant movement spearheaded by politicians such as Congressman and Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, newspaper editor and Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington state as well as Presidents Coolidge and Hoover.

As an aside, Johnson coined the phrase “Keep America American” which was picked up by the Klan.  Coolidge rephrased it as “America must be kept American.”

In fact, a 1930s survey of lodging establishments across the country just as travel and tourism became mainstream found that 90% would not accept Chinese as guests.

Germans and Eastern Europeans were the primary targets of nativism back then but it appears to be essentially the same play book that Republican hopeful Donald Trump’s campaign strategy has resurrected today only targeting Latino immigrants this time.

Today, surveys show that only 10 to 15 percent of Americans harbor explicit prejudice against Black Americans compared to about 60% from the 1930s up through the 1950s.

I suspect there may be the same percentage of blacks who are openly prejudiced toward whites.

But racism or prejudice or should I say acceptance of other groups occurs on a spectrum and there is evidence that 7% of Americans are truly virulent racists.

During the 1990s, the organization I led mounted a grassroots effort that reversed the negativity toward Durham manifest by a majority of those living in nearby communities.

But researchers who were helping us told us not to bother when those who continued to be very negative was reduced to single digits.

From reading verbatims, reports from mystery shops and especially online comments to news stories, it was abundantly clear they fell among those remaining were hard core, virulent racists.

Having always been more diverse, Durham was merely a surrogate for their animosity.

We succeeded in the image turn around by inoculating those who were uncertain and reinforcing those who were positive about Durham while appealing to those who were “milder” negatives with better information.

This is why we were wise not to launch a big ad campaign.  Far too blunt as a marketing tactic, traditional ads merely reinforce existing opinions (positive and negative.)

In the wake of Supreme Court rulings on the unconstitutionality of segregation, by the dawn of the 1960s Americans were gradually becoming much more egalitarian and self-conscious about intolerance.

So by the 1970s scientific surveys to determine prejudice had to become more covert as attitudes toward explicit prejudice changed.

By then my dad was turning 50 was apparently too ingrained to make the shift or maybe he just liked pushing my buttons during during lively debates on visits home.

However, I had noticed growing up that while he seemed explicitly prejudiced toward some groups, at least in rhetoric, he wasn’t at all when it came to individuals.

You often hear something similar voiced by regressive politicians and some celebrities who when caught making insensitive or racist remarks are quick to rationalize that Black people are some of their best friends.

Studies show that 75% of Americans - including some who are Black -have an implicit preference for white vs. black racial groups.  It often results in institutional bias where studies show that even a percentage point or two of discrimination on an individual level can add up to a disadvantage for Black Americans overall.

It is reflected in the analysis of tipping practices where patrons, on average, including those who are Black are found to give higher tips to Caucasian servers.

It is why studies also find that many Americans are favorable to leveling the playing field based on gender but not ethnicity, betraying an implicit bias.

But about 40% of Americans have what researchers call aversive racism, a term coined in the 1980s, which means they avoid interaction with other racial and ethnic groups.

Americans who fall into these groups today probably don’t self-identify as racists.

Nor are police officers using stereotypes to make lightning quick life or death decisions protecting neighborhood where less than 25% of the residents, according to Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson are structurally disconnected and/or mimicking a street culture that is often itself racist and misogynist as well as defiant of authority and laws.

This all crossed my mind recently while driving home from a lakeside retreat in the county north of Durham.

I was mulling over how a heavy-set white woman had been loudly pontificating up and down the isles of a Walmart to anyone who would listen characterizing Durham as a cesspool, albeit one which provided her with job when a pickup flew past in the opposite direction.

Speeding north along Dirgie Mine Road through Allensville it was streaming two huge, 4’ x 6’ Confederate flags on each side of the truck’s bed.

Doing a little stereotyping of my own, I wondered if the occupants were just trying to intimidate the fourth of the residents there who are black.

Or maybe they were returning from one of the demonstrations of support for that bygone symbol or maybe they just proud albeit insensitive and shallow good ole Southern boys.

Researchers use the term disassociation to describe how our minds operate at two levels, one automatic and the other reflective.

This is how so many Americans can profess to be egalitarian but their automatic responses are clearly biased.

My dad was very egalitarian but reflecting the norms of his youth also very biased when it came to blacks as a group.  Pushing back against his attitudes while growing up I’m sure played a role in propelling me to be much more tolerant and accepting of other groups.

But wondering if I also absorbed an implicit bias when it comes to race, during my summer hiatus from these posts I took the test related to race at Project Implicit.

It was devised in the late 1990s by researchers at the University of Washington, Harvard and the University of Virginia including the two authors of Blindspot, which I also highly recommend.

The test is ingenious for many reasons including that test-takers can’t “game it.”  I suspect that may be because it also measures hesitation.

There are also tests to measure implicit biases based on age, gender, sexuality, weight and religion to name a few.

I turned out to be neutral when it comes to race.  In other words, I am not biased toward or against others on the basis of race.  I have yet to take the other tests but I suspect I may be implicitly biased on the issue of weight.

Take it for yourself, regardless of your ethnicity and especially if you feel or get the impression from others that you may be racist, even somewhat.

It should be require of elected officials seeking to undermine voter rights.  

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