The Inertia Trap

How the way we think can be an enemy of change

The Hazards of Debating Race and Inequality

Accusations of racial bias can harden support for an inequitable social system.

Imagine there is a certain advantaged group of people that supports a policy that harms a disadvantaged group, and you believe there are hints of racial or ethnic bias underlying their position. Even if the advantaged group doesn't literally believe that the disadvantaged group is less deserving, it's impossible to view their insensitivity to the plight of those at the bottom of the system without considering race.

Now imagine you're a prominent activist or politician gearing up to take on the advantaged group's inequitable policy. What's the optimal approach? Should you characterize their views in the most despicable way possible? Or would it be better to tone down the sensitive rhetoric and attempt to signal that you aim to be reasonable?

If there's any kind of public element to the debate, most people will want to avoid being too conciliatory. After all, you need the public to know the scope of the injustice you're fighting. There's also research that suggests it can be harmful to avoid calling a spade a spade. A recent study led by Heather Rasinski found that after passing up an opportunity to confront somebody who exhibited prejudice, participants viewed the offending person more favorably and believed that confronting them was less important. Rasinski and her team concluded that in order for participants to reconcile the difference between their beliefs, which held that prejudice was always unacceptable, and their actions, which suggested that prejudice might not be so unacceptable, they revised their beliefs to reflect their actions. Thus, it's important not to hold back when confronted with injustice because your lack of intensity can influence the strength of your beliefs.

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On the other hand, it may be even more important to avoid drifting too close to the other extreme. Simple common sense tells you that a negotiation will go poorly if you demonize the other side, but accusations of racial or ethnic bias will be particularly damaging because of the strong threat they pose to a person's self-concept and their belief that they're ultimately a good person. When faced with such a threat people will respond by finding ways to mitigate it. The question then, is how exactly people mitigate the threat.

new study led by Tamar Saguy suggests a discouraging answer. Saguy and her team conducted three experiments that examined attitudes about inequality in the context of the relationships between Americans and Hispanics, Israeli Jews and Arabs, and Italians and African Immigrants. They found that the more the advantaged group felt wronged by accusations of racial bias, the more they viewed the inequality they benefited from as legitimate, and the less they expressed a willingness to take action to reduce inquality. In other words, when people felt unfairly accused of racial bias, they responded by legitimizing the system that put them in an advantaged position, and that led to a reduced desire to help the disadvantaged group.

So, for example, if somebody says your group of rich white men doesn't care about Hispanic immigrants, that poses a threat to the moral standing of your group. But since your brain is generally focused on making you think your group is awesome, it will attempt to preserve that perception of awesomeness by strengthening the belief that your group's wealth is the outcome of a system devoid of unfairness. In a sense, you're maintaining your level of "goodness" by countering the increased possibility that you're prejudiced with the increased possibility that your advantaged status is legitimate. Unfortunately, a stronger belief in the legitimacy of the system will lead to a weaker desire to help the people who are on the bottom of it.

All of this puts our hypothetical activist in a tricky position, but might there be another tool researchers have found for effectivley dealing with the issue of race-based inequality? Some studies have shown that people in an advantaged group are more likely to act to reduce inequality when the gap is framed as resulting from their own advantage rather than another group's disadvantage. One study, which was based on the reasoning that people don't like being seen as advantaged, found that when inequality was framed as resulting from White advantage, Whites were more likely to support policies that reduced economic opportunites for their own race (but not more likely to suport policies that increased opportunities for minorities.) Another study found that when income inequality was framed as the higest earners making more money rather than everybody else making less money, conservatives were more likely to support raising taxes on the wealthy. The researchers attributed their findings to the idea that framing inequality in terms of advantage makes people more aware of how external factors (e.g. place of birth, luck) contributed to their success.

Yet these studies don't directly address the problem of race-related accusations strengthening support for an inequitable system. At the margin, framing inequality in terms of advantage may help mitigate the negative effects of these accusations, but such frames don't truly provide a better a way to talk about sensitive issues involving race. Ultimately, the best advice for debating race and inequality may sound like something a parent would tell a 4th grader. Make sure you let the person know you're unhappy with their behavior, but try not to hurt their feelings.


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Eric Horowitz is a social science writer and education researcher.


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