Racism Doesn’t Work the Way You Think It Does

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The word discrimination immediately conjures up visions of hostile acts, from mid-century “whites only” signs to redlining practices that stymie African-Americans’ attempts at home ownership.

But an important new paper soon to be published in American Psychologist argues that “in present-day America, discrimination results more from helping ingroup members than from harming outgroup members.” In other words, racist outcomes can arise without much actual racism, simply through the very human tendency to help out people with whom you have something in common.

The co-authors, Anthony Greenwald and Thomas Pettigrew, came to this conclusion after reviewing a wide range of past research on discrimination, from theories of ingroup bonding to a classic study of white- and black-sounding actors calling random numbers and posing as stranded motorists. It’s a provocative finding given that discussions of discrimination in the United States usually center on the idea of one group actively oppressing another. The authors acknowledge that this still occurs (and there is plenty of scholarly evidence about the impact of implicit racism, even among folks with no overt hostility toward racial minorities), but offer up their theory as a means of explaining why we have so many harmful disparities between racial groups despite the facts that explicitly racist policies have been outlawed and public-opinion polls have shown big jumps in tolerance in recent decades.

Greenwald and Pettigrew start their article with a vignette that nicely illustrates the argument:

Imagine: You are a well-positioned manager in a large business. You supervise several other managers who also have substantial responsibility. One of your subordinate managers, Sylvia, mentions that her daughter, Kate, who is a school classmate of your daughter, was just sent home from school with the flu. You encourage Sylvia to take time off until Kate can return to school. When it later becomes time for you to conduct Sylvia’s annual performance review you have a problem because her above-average performance falls just between levels that could justify your giving her an overall judgment of “meets expectations” or “exceeds expectations.” You opt for “exceeds expectations,” which ultimately helps Sylvia to qualify for a promotion and a salary raise. Another employee, Robert, is equally above average. Robert’s records show that he too missed several days of work, but you do not know him as well and do not know why he missed work. You give Robert a “meets expectations” evaluation, and he gets a smaller raise and no promotion. It is not difficult to understand why.

“It is not difficult to understand why” is the whole point here. Human beings have a deep, ages-old drive to help out those with whom they have something in common, even if it’s something as simple as living on the same street or going to the same church. The problem is that because of how stubbornly persistent segregation is in most facets of American life, “something in common” tends to have a racial component.

In addition to putting these sorts of day-to-day experiences into a broader context, Greenwald and Pettigrew’s argument also helps explains why the national debate over race is so dysfunctional. If the question isn’t really about who is oppressing whom (whether explicitly or implicitly), but rather about how, through our acts of kindness, we are unwittingly driving segregation and other aspects of the racial divide, that’s a very different conversation, and potentially a less vitriolic one.

Again, none of this is to say there aren’t terribly discriminatory policies still alive in the U.S. despite the nation’s ostensible colorblindness, or that racism is dead. But it’s striking, and a little depressing, how easy it is for discrimination to arise even in the absence of much overt hostility.