Does Asking White People for Moral Self-Reflection About Race Actually Work?

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The recent conversation between Hillary Clinton and Black Lives Matter activists after an event in Keene, New Hampshire, is a fascinating look at a mainstream political candidate’s attempts to engage with a burgeoning activist movement, and vice-versa — especially now that there’s video of it. In the brief clips available so far, Black Lives Matter’s Julius Jones recounts the American government’s long history of racist policies and argues that Clinton is complicit in them due to crime and drug-related bills passed by Bill Clinton, then asks her to search her feelings about that. Clinton’s response comes from a very different place:

Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not gonna change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day we can do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them to live up to their own God-given potential … You can keep the movement going, which you have started, and through it you may actually change some hearts. But if that’s all that happens, we’ll be back here in ten years having the same conversation.

Daunasia Yancey, another one of the activists in the video, later went on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show and said that since the hope was for a personal reflection from Clinton, “her response really targeting on policy wasn’t sufficient for us.”

It should be obvious that no attempt to bridge the racial divide in America is only going to involve either policy change or white people reflecting on their role in maintaining structural racism. But this debate does neatly highlight historical tendencies within activist movements and some of the challenges they face in the attempt to take their message mainstream.

Back in 1965, in an issue of Ebony magazine dedicated to “The White Problem in America,” Lerone Bennett Jr. wrote that “When we say that the white American is a problem to himself, we mean that racism is a reflection of personal and collective anxieties lodged deep in the hearts and minds of white Americans.” It’s not only a powerful sentence, it’s a prescient one — in the years since then, reams of psychological research have underscored the reality that racism isn’t just terrorists running around in hoods. It can take on all manner of subtle, more hidden, and unconscious forms, and can even embed itself in institutions that claim to be “color-blind,” as Michelle Alexander brilliantly showed in her book The New Jim Crow.

In many activist and academic communities, this realization has led to a focus on white privilege — the idea that white Americans continue to enjoy certain benefits that people of color do not. Interrogating white privilege and asking would-be white allies to reflect on it becomes a major priority. Without this, some activists say, real progress isn’t possible. The focus on “checking your privilege,” while easy to caricature, reflects the reality that a lot of people don’t understand how cultural and economic inheritance on a societal level shapes their opportunities.

The policy-minded counterargument to this approach was recently stated by Oliver Willis, an African-American blogger and Media Matters for America fellow: “You meet with the Democratic frontrunner for president, right now the person in the field in either party with the highest likelihood of being president, and the best you can do is ask her about her feelings?” To Willis, the content of Clinton’s heart is unimportant: “No offense to Secretary Clinton, but I don’t care about her feelings on this issue as much as I am interested in her and other leaders — of either party — getting behind concrete reforms to stop — STOP — the policies and tactics that have led to such problems for our fellow Americans.” In other words, who cares what people think if we can fix policies that lead to racist outcomes? (It should be pointed out that another meeting Clinton had with Black Lives Matter activists, including DeRay Mckesson, one of the group’s leaders, did appear to be more policy-focused.)

It’s clear these ideas are in tension, at least at the extremes — if you focus mostly on white people and their need to reflect on their privilege, you might miss out on important policy considerations; if, on the other hand, you focus on policy at the expense of reflection, there’s a chance you won’t change the underlying attitudes that give rise to racist institutions in the first place.

Where does that leave us? Social science can help, and here are a few key findings:

1. White Americans don’t tend to agree that the country has a race problem. One of the underlying problems in addressing America’s racial divide is that many white people don’t acknowledge its existence. As the work of researchers like Michael I. Norton has shown, white people are much, much less likely to acknowledge that there are racial discrepancies in policing, access to resources, and other issues. In fact, some recent polls have shown that white people think anti-white bias is a bigger problem in society than anti-black bias (a view that is, suffice to say, not borne out of any actual data). Even white millennials aren’t as tolerant as one might hope.

One way to interpret all this is that while some white “allies” of Black Lives Matter are ready to talk about anti-black bias and their own privilege, many Americans might not be (more on this soon). In cases where they aren’t, Clinton’s talk of needing to find “common ground” may be more important than mere politician-speak — it might reflect the reality that if white people can’t even acknowledge discrimination against black people is a problem, there’s no hope of “changing their hearts.”

2. White-privilege conversations are vital, but psychologically threatening to white people. Eric Knowles, a social psychologist at NYU, told me that white people “often feel defensive when told that they’re members of a group that has just factually perpetrated historical wrongs, and that they’re currently enjoying privileges.” No one wants to be part of a “bad” group, and no one wants to have their accomplishments called into question, because an individual may well feel like they’ve earned everything they have without the help of white privilege, or they might be dealing with struggles that don’t lead them to feel privileged in the first place. (It should be said that this isn’t unique to white people: One of the core truisms of research into persuasion is that arguments that elicit defensiveness in the receiver are less likely to succeed. On the other hand, “When people have their self-worth validated in some way, they tend to be more receptive to information that challenges their beliefs,” Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, told me last year.)

Recently, a team led by Knowles proposed what they call a “3-D” system for conceptualizing white people’s reactions to the idea that they are a privileged group. Writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the researchers argued that such reactions fit into one of three categories: deny, distance, or dismantle. Those in the first group deny the existence of white privilege altogether, and sometimes reach for arguments about anti-white bias instead; those in the second group acknowledge white privilege but claim it doesn’t apply to them (because of their class, for example — it’s worth pointing out here that class is obviously a major factor in questions of who gets what, but can’t fully explain society’s discrepancies); and those in the third agree that white privilege is a problem that needs to be, well, dismantled.

Black Lives Matter wants white people to land in the “dismantle” camp. But Knowles said that since this is a new model, researchers don’t yet know exactly what causes a white person to favor one or the other approach. Knowles told me that he suspects that things like a white person’s political orientation and past educational experiences play a role, but that more research is needed. 

Richard Harvey, an instructor at St. Louis University, said that given all the potential for white people to react negatively to these sorts of messages, it’s important to take an individualized approach.“I kind of subscribe to what I would call a developmental continuum,” he said. “That is, you kind of have to see where people are with regard to their development [on race and privilege issues] to decide which kinds of techniques are going to work best with them.”

That means that asking for moral self-inquiry might only work on people who’ve already thought about this stuff a little. “Frankly, I think that confronting people with white privilege and implicit biases requires they be a little further along on the developmental continuum in order to truly receive that. I do think it’s ultimately needed, but it wouldn’t be my first ‘date,’” Harvey said. In other words, a little coddling might help, at least early on.

The response to which might be: Haven’t white people been coddled enough? Isn’t it time they just finally face up to the privilege they’ve enjoyed for so long? Knowles says: “My reaction to that is, in the world today social change on a large scale is going to require the buy-in of the most powerful racial group — it’s a side effect of an unequal and unfair power structure that you’re going to achieve the most durable change if you can engage the most powerful people in that process of change” — that is, white people — “and I think that’s really obvious.” In other words, as in any other activist effort, some message-tailoring will be necessary. “You want to open people’s minds to the possibility that they’re at the top of a hierarchy without engaging all of their psychological defenses, like denial, disengagement, and just not listening,” said Knowles.

3. Segregation is still a huge factor, and integration may help reduce the number of white people who reject notions of white privilege and institutionalized racism. Lisa Spanierman, an Arizona State University psychologist who researches, among other things, white reactions to arguments about privilege and racism, told me that one effective way to encourage self-reflection about race among white people is through having meaningful interactions with black people. This “contact hypothesis” idea dates back to the pioneering social psychologist Gordon Allport, but it’s a challenging goal given the United States’ persistent segregation problem, particularly — but not exclusively — in schools.  “We” — that is, white people — “can really avoid people of color, and we do it unconsciously by living in quote ‘safe’ neighborhoods and adopting other practices that don’t feel like they’re contributing to the racial divide, but which are,” said Spanierman.

This notion can be overstated: Just as the old idea that listening to the music and eating the food of other cultures will magically open minds hasn’t really panned out, it’s not as simple as just mashing black and white people together and, voilà!, societal progress. But on the question of whether meaningful interactions and relationships between groups can reduce prejudice, there’s strong evidence that they can. A recent two-part "This American Life" episode powerfully showed white resistance to the integration of school systems, but also the benefits — including meaningful interactions — that can occur once it’s achieved. If Knowles, Spanierman, and other researchers are correct, these interactions may well open white people up to those aforementioned, psychologically threatening conversations about race. Policy, in other words, can lead to self-reflection.