Racism Without Racists
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: October 4, 2008
One of the fallacies this election season is that if Barack Obama is paying an electoral price for his skin tone, it must be because of racists.On the contrary, the evidence is that Senator Obama is facing what scholars have dubbed "racism without racists."
The racism is difficult to measure, but a careful survey completed last month by Stanford University, with The Associated Press and Yahoo, suggested that Mr. Obama's support would be about six percentage points higher if he were white. That's significant but surmountable.
Most of the lost votes aren't those of dyed-in-the-wool racists. Such racists account for perhaps 10 percent of the electorate and, polling suggests, are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.
Rather, most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously.
"When we fixate on the racist individual, we're focused on the least interesting way that race works," said Phillip Goff, a social psychologist at U.C.L.A. who focuses his research on "racism without racists." "Most of the way race functions is without the need for racial animus."
For decades, experiments have shown that even many whites who earnestly believe in equal rights will recommend hiring a white job candidate more often than a person with identical credentials who is black. In the experiments, the applicant's folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience.
Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about — in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign.
For example, when the black job candidate is highly qualified, there is no discrimination. Yet in a more muddled gray area where reasonable people could disagree, unconscious discrimination plays a major role.
White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time.
John Dovidio, a psychologist at Yale University who has conducted this study over many years, noted that conscious prejudice as measured in surveys has declined over time. But unconscious discrimination — what psychologists call aversive racism — has stayed fairly constant.
"In the U.S., there's a small percentage of people who in nationwide surveys say they won't vote for a qualified black presidential candidate," Professor Dovidio said. "But a bigger factor is the aversive racists, those who don't think that they're racist." Faced with a complex decision, he said, aversive racists feel doubts about a black person that they don't feel about an identical white. "These doubts tend to be attributed not to the person's race — because that would be racism — but deflected to other areas that can be talked about, such as lack of experience," he added.
Of course, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to be against a particular black candidate, Mr. Obama included. Opposition to Mr. Obama is no more evidence of racism than opposition to Mr. McCain is evidence of discrimination against the elderly or against war veterans. And at times, Mr. Obama's race helps him: it underscores his message of change, it appeals to some whites as a demonstration of their open-mindedness, and it wins him overwhelming black votes and turnout.
Still, a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination. (Blacks have their own unconscious biases, surprisingly often against blacks as well.)
One set of experiments conducted since the 1970s involves subjects who believe that they are witnessing an emergency (like an epileptic seizure). When there is no other witness, a white bystander will call for help whether the victim is white or black, and there is very little discrimination.
But when there are other bystanders, so the individual responsibility to summon help may feel less obvious, whites will still summon help 75 percent of the time if the victim is white but only 38 percent of the time if the victim is black.
One lesson from this research is that racial biases are deeply embedded within us, more so than many whites believe. But another lesson, a historical one, is that we can overcome unconscious bias. That's what happened with the decline in prejudice against Catholics after the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
It just might happen again, this time with race.
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, and to join me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kristof.