June 11th, 2009

corset & bougainvillea

Dovidio and Gaertner.

You're surely seen me reference aversive racism before. This is an essay by the researchers who coined the term and have researched it since the early 1970s.

Color Blind or Just Plain Blind?: The Pernicious Nature of Contemporary Racism

John F. Dovidio and Samuel L. Gaertner

This article discusses how racism has mutated to partially hide itself from view—perhaps not from the view of those who experience its effects—but certainly from the view of those who practice what has come to be called “aversive racism.”

We start with a fairly stark example of what we are talking about. In 1973 we created a field experiment that divided a group of white people residing in Brooklyn, NY into those who had liberal and those who had conservative beliefs. Both the liberal and the conservative households received wrong-number telephone calls that quickly developed into requests for assistance. The callers, who were clearly identifiable from their dialects as being black or white, explained that their car was disabled and that they were attempting to reach a service garage from a public phone along the parkway. The callers further claimed that they had no more change to make another call and asked the subject to help by calling the garage. If the subject refused to help or hung up after the caller explained that he or she had no more change, a “not helping” response was recorded. If the subject hung up before learning that the motorist had no more change, the response was considered to be a “premature hangup.”

The first finding from this study was easy and predictable. Conservatives showed a higher “not helping” response to blacks than to whites (92 percent versus 65 percent) whereas liberals helped blacks and whites more equally (75 percent versus 85 percent). If we were to have left the findings here, liberals would appear to be relatively well-intentioned.

Unfortunately, this edge is cancelled out by liberals having “hung up prematurely” much more often on blacks than they did on whites (19 percent versus 3 percent). Conservatives did not discriminate in this way (8 percent versus 5 percent). The numbers were even worse when we pulled out the response to male callers. That is, liberals hung up prematurely on black and white male callers 28 percent and 10 percent of the time respectively. Thus, both conservative and liberal whites discriminated against blacks but in different ways.

What could possibly explain such behavior among people who presumably consider themselves egalitarian? The explanation, as this and many subsequent studies have demonstrated, is that many liberal white people will not publicly and consciously express bias against blacks, but, because they have unconscious negative feelings about blacks, they will discriminate in subtle ways. This subtle and unconscious bias is what we mean when we refer to aversive racism.

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