Our VoiceCulture

On the Continuing Significance of Race: People’s Exhibit #373

Guest Blogger • Jun 05, 2009

by Andrew Grant-Thomas

About six months ago I came across a study that found that people who are incarcerated, unemployed or poor are more likely to be seen as “black,” and to self-identify as “black,” regardless of past racial classification.

Correspondingly, they were less likely to be identified, and to self-identify, as “white.”

Stop. Wrap your mind around that for a moment.

The message here is not that black Americans are more likely to be poor, unemployed or incarcerated than other Americans, a statement that is undeniably true. The message is that poverty, unemployment and incarceration make you black. That’s the “social construction of race” with a vengeance.

Here’s another case study on what cognitive scientists call hidden or “implicit” bias.

Researchers asked 600 randomly selected Whites to review videos of residential neighborhoods. Some saw images of White people getting their mail, parking their cars, strolling down the block, and so on. Others saw neighborhoods occupied by a mix of white and black residents engaged in the same activities. A third group saw only black residents.

Asked to evaluate the quality of the neighborhoods, Whites who saw all-white areas evaluated those neighborhoods most favorably, reporting that they looked safer, with better schools and higher housing values, than the racially mixed neighborhoods, which in turn were judged superior to the ones with black residents only.

Here’s the thing: the neighborhoods were the same neighborhoods and the “residents” were actors dressed the same and doing the same things. Only the racial makeup differed.

Now, as reported in Monday’s Washington Post, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have found that customers rate white male employees more favorably than female and minority employees even when performance is demonstrably identical.

For example, the researchers found that patient satisfaction, as reported in satisfaction surveys, corresponded to objective assessments of doctor performance only in the case of white male doctors. For women and minority doctors, “extra quality, accessibility and diligence not only did not result in better evaluations by patients, they produced worse evaluations.”

In other work, volunteers who saw a video of a white male clerk operating a bookstore gave higher marks to that clerk than volunteers who saw a black male or a white female clerk gave those workers. In fact, the clerks were actors who provided exactly the same service. And golfers reported greater satisfaction with golf clubs nationwide that employed fewer nonwhite workers than with those that employed more nonwhites even when worker performance was objectively the same.

Let’s hold off on the Post-Racialism Parade.

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