The Subtlety of Contemporary Racism - Hamilton College
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The Subtlety of Contemporary Racism


John Dovidio
John Dovidio

In modern day America, it’s sometimes said that racism no longer exists. Three decades after the Civil Rights Movement, our country elected its first black president, seemingly validating this view. However, John Dovidio, the Carl Iver Hovland Professor of Psychology and the Dean of Academic Affairs of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Yale University, disagrees.

Dovidio presented the John Rybash Memorial Psychology Lecture on Sept. 9. Rybash served as a professor at Hamilton from 1990 to 1999, when he died from cancer at the premature age of 51. He was a beloved member of the Hamilton community and, in 1995, was honored as a fellow in the American Psychological Association. Dovidio, who taught at Colgate University for 27 years, knew Rybash and described this lecture as “a type of homecoming.”

Dovidio is a research psychologist known for his work on social issues, such as the topic of his presentation, aversive racism. The term refers to the phenomenon that racial majorities attempt to avoid explicit racist thoughts and actions, contrary to the overt “old-fashioned racism” of the Jim Crow era. Despite this earnest desire, racial majorities, such as whites in America, are still influenced by implicit racism. Such implicit biases are formed subconsciously through personal and vicarious experiences, as well as mass media influences.

Although Dovidio has extensively studied the social psychology of prejudice against ethnic minorities and women, his presentation focused on implicit racism against black Americans. To test this, researchers use an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure the participant’s implicit bias. Although 85% of white Americans self report not being prejudiced, an astounding 75% of them were revealed to be implicitly prejudice by the IAT. Thus, Dovidio explained, “there is a dissociation between what they think their attitudes are and how they’re implicitly influenced.”

To elucidate this point, Dovidio provided an example from his 1989 study of white college students. The students were asked to help the researcher decide who should be hired for an available position, choosing between a black and a white candidate. When the black applicant was well qualified, meaning there was a clear right-and-wrong, there were no racist tendencies. However, when the applicant had mixed credentials, there was significant racism against the black candidate.

Dovidio explained that this study, which was repeated in 1999 and again in 2005 with the same results, shows how whites weigh qualifications differently based on the applicant’s race, yet find reasons other than race to justify their implicitly racist decision.

In a separate study, Dovidio discovered that once a black person and a white person are put on the same “team,” implicitly racist attitudes disappeared. Expanding on this, he explained that two individuals, one black and one white, are keenly aware of their different ethnicities and, by default, see each other as belonging to a group outside their own. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are concerned with acquiring and maintaining status and power for their group; a goal which is accomplished by resisting progress of other groups, whether conscious or unconsciously.

Due to the subconscious nature of implicit racism, individuals of different races can leave with opposite impressions of an interaction. Being aware of implicit and explicit racism is the first step in combating these subconscious tendencies, which manifest themselves in subtle ways such as closed posture, infrequent eye contact, and maintaining a physical distance. Although we are not living in a post-racist society, many believe that we are, and an even greater number aspire to be.

While many resign to the belief that racism is simply how the world works, Dovidio resists this view. “The way of the world is egality,” he argues, prejudice is learned although, more often than not, subliminally, slowly and against our conscious desires.

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