Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

What Bankruptcy and Racial Bias Mean for the Presidential Election

A new study on bankruptcy tells us what's in store for the 2012 election.

In the news this week, more evidence of discrimnation under our seemingly egalitarian noses: A forthcoming study in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies shows that lawyers are about twice as likely to steer black debtors filing for bankruptcy towards the harsher chapter 13 than they are other filers, whom they are more likely to steer towards chapter 7. It is crticial to note that in their analysis, the researchers found evidence of the bias even with identical financial cases, and even when accounting for other potential explanatory factors such as debtor assests.

The findings are not easily dismissed, particularly when they occur with regularity in different arenas. as I report in this blog, black coaches in the NBA are more likely to be fired earlier than their white counterparts; and as my colleagues and I discuss in the book that inspired this blog, even umpires— who are paid to be impartial—are more likely to treat players differently as a function of race.

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Another critical thing to note is this quote from one of the authors of the bankruptcy study: "I don't think there is any overt conspiracy."

So, then, what gives? Here the researchers have uncovered evidence of systematic bias against one group, yet the authors say that there is no systematic intent? How can both of these statements be true?

An underlying theme in all of these instances is that at the individual level-- when judges, or team owners are explaining their behavior, each time they have the ability to justify it as having to do with something other than discrimination. A coach is fired because of a losing record, the team owner says, or a given person is steered towards Chapter 13 because of his/her financial situation, the lawyer says.

It's hard to argue against such arguments at the level of individual cases. But when you amass the data the patterns emerge, and they tell us this: when people harbor unconscious stereotypes or racist attitudes, negative environmental circumstances allow people to express prejudice covertly. In this way, modern prejudice "leaks out" in ways that allow people to be prejudiced without having to admit to themselves or others that race plays any part.

But this points to a conundrum about how and whether we interpret negaitve behavior directed at unique minority individuals. In this post, I write about discrimination towards LeBron James. The problem here is that while we are able to have a critical mass of minority versus white coaches or black vs. white filers in bankruptcy, there is only one LeBron James—so the group-level data needed to look at bias trends is missing.

The same is true with President Obama. Because we do not have a critical mass of black versus white U.S. Presidents, we cannot argue with certainty that anger and vitriol directed at the president is racially motivated. But the brewings of a storm are in the air—negative environmental circumstances in the form of a strong recession, job woes for many, and troubled financial markets. And, of course, an election season where negative attacks are the norm. As the New York Times' Charles Blow notes here, racist rhetoric is already being cheered on as principled argument in the Republican primaries.

My concern for the 2012 election cycle is not just negativity, but ramped up hate and downright incivility (remember "You Lie!" in Obama's first State of the Union address?) veiled as politics as usual. And even worse, because there's not been another non-white president, the continued ability to deny that racism continues to be part of the post-Obama American landscape wil remain. And with it, the continued denial of the disenfranchisement that many minorities experience as a result of such rhetoric.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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