By Cheryl Staats, Research Associate,
Every once in a while, research results produce quizzical looks, general confusion, and a collective “Huh?”
A recent example that has garnered media attention was published in the May 2011 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. The startling article asserts that whites believe that anti-white bias has become more prevalent than anti-Black bias. The authors, Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers, asked Black and white respondents to rate anti-Black and anti-white bias on a scale of one to ten for each decade from the 1950s to 2000s. According to their data, whites not only rated anti-Black bias at a lower level than Black respondents did across all decades, but whites also believe that around the 2000s, anti-white bias surpassedanti-Black bias, thus reflecting a zero-sum mentality among whites as anti-Black bias declines.
Commentators quickly tried to make sense of the study’s surprising results, discussing the relatively small sample size (N=417) and the fact that the median age of respondents (M= 50.3) was notably higher than thenational median (M = 36.5). Others reflected on the fact that while Norton and Sommers did not find respondent differences based on age or education, additional demographic factors (i.e., political ideology, state of residence) may play moderating roles, as briefly acknowledged by the authors.
Even accounting for these potential caveats, there is still a lot to absorb and process. In a society in which white supremacy remains deeply ingrained, the authors’ assertion that “whites have now come to view anti-white bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias” is perplexing. Bias against Blacks has been consistently documented in a variety of arenas, both throughout our nation’s history and in present day. One well-known study even found that, with other qualifications being equal, just having an African American name results in receiving fewer callbacks for each résumé sent out in response to a job opening. Simply put, even something as fundamental as a person’s name can open a person up to being the target of others’ biases. Moreover, some studies using Implicit Association Test data have even documented Blacks displaying anti-Black/pro-white biases, which may be attributed to the pervasiveness of anti-Black sentiments in our society, though this finding is not consistent.
While it is impossible to know what thoughts or incidents whites were contemplating when they stated their perception of anti-white bias surpassing anti-Black bias in the aforementioned survey, study results such as these serve as a significant reminder that our so-called post-racial society remains a nonexistent fiction. W.E.B. DuBois’ prescient statement that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” remains glaringly true a full decade into the twenty-first century.
While much of the media’s interest in post-racialism generally has quelled now that President Obama’s election is no longer a breaking news story, I imagine that similar themes will gradually resurface as the U.S. continually transitions toward a majority nonwhite society by mid-century. How will the zero-sum mentality displayed by whites, as illustrated in this study, be affected as the multiracial boom continues, particularly among youth? How will Black-white relations and biases change as whites become a numerical minority? When the term ‘white supremacy’ is discussed mid-century and beyond, in what ways might our country’s changing demographics have altered that conversation?
Many of these questions will only be answerable in time. But the answer to the question of whether or not the U.S. is currently post-racial remains obvious: No.