banner by Sarah Burns

Seeing a Speckled Society: The Sociopsychological Tendencies to be Racist

by Andrew Zale

Players have chosen to sit out of the national anthem, literally, with fists in the air throughout the 2016 NFL season as military members and performers alike sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The question at hand—is the United States institutionally racist—has been brought under the microscope once again, even though implicit racism has been studied for decades.

The terminology that has surrounded the race debate in this country, however, has been around for less than a century. It was neither a sociologist nor psychologist, but instead a journalist, Walt Lippmann, who coined the term stereotype in his 1922 book “Public Opinion”. He described a stereotype as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.” Simply, a person, without even realizing, creates stereotypes based on incorrect perceptions.

Harvard University psychologist Gordon Allport initiated the study of social psychology and racism in his 1954 book “The Nature of Prejudice”. Here, Allport delineates what has now become known as the Intergroup Contact Hypothesis: prejudices can be broken down when different social groups intermingle.

However, without different cultural interactions, chauvinism, overrating one’s own identity group, can arise. Yale University researchers Muzafer and Caroline Sherif first studied excessive group pride in young boys from 1954-68. In their classical series of experiments known as The Robbers Cave Experiments, the Sherifs demonstrated that young boys will insulate themselves in power-seeking cliques when set to compete against one another. This ethnocentrism—a human tendency to think highly of one’s own culture over another—transpired to such an extent that some boys claimed that their best friends were not friends with them if placed on different teams.

The contemporary study of implicit bias, or subconscious tendencies to favor one race over another, took a spin when the focus of research shifted from chauvinism to inherent racism. University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers Drs. David Amodio and Patricia G. Devine released a groundbreaking study, “Stereotyping and Evaluation in Implicit Race Bias,” which demonstrated that undergraduate students have implicit biases in 2002. Students were able to categorize negative words more quickly than positive words after seeing an African-American’s face, and were able to categorize positive words faster than negative words after seeing a white person’s face.

The effects of racial biases are not limited to abstract ideas and the effects of implicit bias still resonates in the medical field. In 2007, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Alex Green released a study on how physicians treated patients at-risk of a heart attack. The results were that as a doctor’s implicit racism increased, the doctor is less likely to treat an African-American with thrombolytic drugs to minimize blood clots. Green hypothesizes that the low treatment rate for African Americans is due to doctors perceiving them as “less cooperative” than their white counterparts. Although no research supports such an idea, the negative effects of implicit bias manifests itself and causes personal harm to those thought lesser of. 

Similarly, a 2013 study, completed by the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, demonstrated that pediatricians were more likely to prescribe painkillers to white children than black children; the authors hypothesized that the high-stress environment of the hospital encouraged doctors to act with prejudice subconsciously.

Although there are many studies confirming the presence of implicit prejudices, the cause of this subtle process remains unknown. One of the most popular theories combines natural selection and social learning theory. Natural selection states that the most well-adapted groups survive; thousands of years ago, humans who could create subconscious connections, such as “I should avoid dangerous animals” and “I should not eat poisonous berries” had an adaptive advantage. Therefore, humans are predisposed to these subtle prejudices. Social learning theory says that humans are primed to learn based on what they hear; thus, implicit bias can be taught to kids at a relatively young age by their parents. Our ability to formulate quick relationships, such as white is good and black is bad, and learn these relationships from others have allowed implicit racism to matriculate into contemporary society, where most people would vehemently say they are not racist.

As studies above have shown, it is natural for humans to preferentially support their own social publics and—whether knowingly or unknowingly—appear to negatively judge societal members of outgroups. Whether or not you fundamentally agree with the actions of the NFL players, you should objectively evaluate their circumstances; without such objectivity, progress would be impossible. As Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”