Accusations of Racism: Pointing Fingers Versus Teachable Moments

A racially-tinged standoff in Georgia requires compassion on both sides

Posted Sep 15, 2011

So, two guys walk into a bar...

and quite suddenly this story turns unfunny.

As reported here, two African American men sitting at a bar in Georgia were apparently asked to vacate their seats so that the seats could be given to two White women. At issue is whether this is a case of racial bias, or rather a case of Southern chivalry since tradition at this bar has it that seats at the bar be given up for women.

These cases always make for interesting—if difficult—commentary, due to the ambiguity of the intentions. Part of the difficulty is that it's probably a little bit of both: as I explore in this post, discrimination and bias are particularly likely to occur when people feel like their behavior can be explained through other means. A good example is a 2005 New York Times study showing that African American head coaches in the NBA have significantly shorter tenures than their white counterparts. It is relevant here because people feel they can justify the firing of a coach—any coach—due to a losing record, team chemistry, or "a change in direction." Yet the systematic bias is undeniable when you look at the trends. In the same way, as a psychologist, I can't help but wonder if the request to ask African American patrons to give up their seats was more foreceful than it might have otherwise been—and the behavior could be unconsciously justified in terms of another set of motivations (i.e., the tradition of asking men to give up their seats at busy times at this tavern). 

In 1977, my colleagues Sam Gaertner and Jack Dovidio ran an ingenious study to demonstrate the systematicity of this process. The researchers invited white participants to come into the lab. Participants were told that they were going to be in a study of ESP (extra-sensory perception) with another person (who was actually a research assistant). The pair was placed in separate rooms connected via intercom. Half of the participants thought that only they could hear the person in the room, whereas the other half thought that two other people could hear the audio feed as well. I italicize this detail because it's important.

As the study progressed, the study participants suddenly heard their partner scream over the intercom, followed by the crash of a tall stack of chairs falling. The idea was to make the participant think that there had been an accident. The results revealed that when the person in need of help was white, the study participants tended to go help the person regardless of whether they thought only they had heard the accident or whether others had heard it as well (about 80% of the time).

When the person in need was black, however, the results looked very different. People who thought only they could hear the accident helped about 90% of the time, but when they thought others had heard the emergency, that percentage dropped dramatically to 40%. In other words, prejudice here occurred systematically, and importantly, only in the condition in which people could justify their behavior in terms of another explanation—that is, that other people could hear and would help.

source: Fantasy Park (Wikimedia commons)

I suppose it would be possible to go ahead and collect this data for the courts, but I wish people would instead take this opportunity as a teachable moment—on the one hand, a moment about the subjective experience of being asked to vacate a seat when one is the only minority at a bar (and all the associations that brings with respect to civil rights and unfair treatment), and on the other, a moment about what it feels like to be summarily accused of racism. But that teachable moment can't happen over a lawsuit. Rather, it happens in a supportive, open atmosphere, maybe over—hey, how about that!—a friendly drink. If it were me, I'd make that drink on the house.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.