Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race

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Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race

There has been substantial disagreement among scholars, educators, and policymakers regarding the degree to which the racial climate in the United States has improved for blacks in the decades following the civil rights era. What is clear is that institutionalized racial inequalities of past eras, such as racially separate schools and voting restrictions, no longer exist, and that social policies such as affirmative action have improved the status of black Americans. The burgeoning black middle class evidences the march toward racial equality.

The second half of the twentieth century was a period of "steady and sweeping movement toward general endorsement of the principles of racial equality and integration" (Bobo, 2001, p. 269). Still, trends in racial attitudes suggest that it was not until the mid-1990s that the vast majority of whites endorsed equal employment access and residential and school integration. Despite this improvement, however, whites still show less support for equality of access to housing and interracial marriage, and remain significantly less likely than blacks to support policies intended to rectify racial differences in access to employment and educational opportunities. Trends in racial attitudes suggest that, for whites, the greatest evidence of increasing endorsement of racial equality and integration is in the most public and impersonal arenas, like schools, public accommodations, and the workplace (Bobo, 2001). Hence, blacks and whites remain at a crossroads with regard to the issues of racial discrimination and the causes of racial inequality.

In their landmark study of black residential segregation, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton found that "although blacks and whites may share a common commitment to 'integration' in principle, this word connotes very different things to people in the two racial groups. For blacks, residential integration means racial mixing in the range of fifteen to seventy percent black, with fifty percent being most desirable; for whites, it signifies much smaller black percentages" (Massey and Denton, 1993, p. 93).

There is also strong empirical evidence suggesting that racism remains a powerful, damaging force that bars blacks from complete inclusion in American society. Blacks are still the most residentially segregated and economically disadvantaged group in the United States. Massey and Denton's findings show that residential segregation is the "structural linchpin" impeding black progress. The majority of black Americans (irrespective of social class) reside in "hypersegregated areas" replete with poverty and social disorder. Relative to whites, blacks complete fewer years of school, earn less income, and accumulate less wealth.

These patterns of persisting socioeconomic inequality by race feed into whites' negative perceptions of blacks, and thus perpetuate black disadvantage. If blacks and other minority groups cannot get ahead, whites are inclined to perceive it as a consequence of their own lack of motivation or other cultural deficiencies. Research indicates that the more whites' explanations for inequality are rooted in cultural or volitional deficiencies, rather than in structural barriers, the less likely they are to support government intervention.

Laissez-Faire Racism

Lawrence Bobo, a prominent social psychologist who focuses on intergroup relations and inequality, argues that while the modern polity no longer formerly condones institutionalized racism, spurns the belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites, and discourages overt intolerance, racism remains a durable force in contemporary America. Bobo uses the term laissez-faire racism to denote the difference between present-day racism and its predecessor, Jim Crow racism. Laissez-faire racism relies on free-market enterprise, which is opposed to strict government regulation of economic and political affairs. Race-neutral policies are supported and maintained, providing credence to the widely held belief that the United States is a color-blind society in which anyone can succeed. Bobo contends that the historical legacy of Jim Crow racismthe era when state policy was antiblack and most whites believed that blacks were categorically inferiorlives on. A substantial portion of the white population still adheres to patently negative stereotypes of blacks, in addition to blaming them for their own collective disadvantage. Bobo believes that government policy has not been successful in ameliorating race-based inequalities and bringing blacks to the table as equal citizens. Laissez-faire racism, he suggests, relies on "loosely coupled, complex, and permeable" forms of domination (Bobo, et al, 1997, p. 17).

The theory of laissez-faire racism is rooted in the sociologist Herbert Blumer's 1958 thesis that racism is embedded in an historical and collective social order. In this view, racism is seen as a grand integrated structural force within society, perpetually justifying white supremacy, whereas laissez-faire racism is the manifestation of whites' efforts to protect their "sense of group position" and alleviate fears of black encroachment following the collapse of Jim Crow ideology and government-sanctioned segregation.

Psychological Responses to Laissez-Faire Racism

Bobo argues that laissez-faire racism results in certain psychological responses by black Americans and may be damaging to the black psyche. Two theories addressing minority-group responses to their disadvantaged positions are known as stereotype threat and oppositional culture. In different ways, each of these theories details macro-level responses to laissez-faire racism.

Claude Steele, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, developed the theory of stereotype threat, which asserts that members of certain groups are fearful of fulfilling negative stereotypes about their group's intellectual ability, and is a psychosocial explanation for academic underperformance by black students. Stereotype threat is possible whenever a person is placed in a "risky" situation, when there is a perceived "threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype" (Steele, 1999, p. 46). A risky situation is when an individual feels mistrustful or apprehensive that his or her actions will be perceived as confirming a group stereo-type. Black students may do worse on an exam because of fear of confirming the anti-intellectual stereotype of the racial group. All that is necessary is an awareness of the negative stereotypes; whether or not students believe the stereotypes themselves is irrelevant. At least in the short term, the threat of confirming anti-intellectual stereotypes results in performance anxiety that depresses academic performance.

Long-term exposure to stereotype threat can cause affected students to "disidentify" with school as a psychosocial defense mechanism. Academic success is then dropped as a basis for self-esteem. This is a method of self-protection: if students perform poorly, they can fall back on the belief that they did not try as hard as they could have, or that getting an "A" just is not important to them anyway. The theory of stereotype reconciles the seemingly contradictory findings that African-American students have higher academic aspirations and place greater value on education than any other group, consistently under-perform academically, and have very high self-esteem.

The theory of oppositional culture, devised by anthropologist John Ogbu, also details the psychosocial responses of black Americans to laissez-faire racism. Ogbu argues that the detrimental effect of racism actually discourages educational and occupational achievement among black Americans. Oppositional-culture theory posits that black Americans underperform at work and school because of racial discrimination and limited socioeconomic possibilities. Blacks are enmeshed in a "blocked opportunities framework" (Kao, 1995) where they occupy a specifically disadvantaged ecological niche that prevents access into high-status (i.e., Eurocentric) social groups, organizations, and institutions.

Ogbu argues that the status of African Americans as involuntary minoritiesmeaning they were incorporated into U.S. society through enslavement and relegated to a subordinate statusis largely responsible for their development of negative feelings about mainstream values and institutions, as well as their identification of racial and cultural differences as symbols of pride and resistance. Voluntary minoritiesthose who enter the United States freely to improve their material well-beingwould not fall prey to this detrimental cultural orientation because they compare themselves to compatriots in their countries of origin. This theoretical framework presupposes that black Americans cope with their disadvantaged position in society by adopting a "black cultural frame of reference," the appropriation of attitudes and behaviors contrary to mainstream white ideologies (Ogbu, 1991).

Whereas a majority of the oppositional-culture research is based on ethnographic fieldwork with poor black Americans in racially segregated urban schools, some research has validated Ogbu's results with other groups in varied milieus (Solomon, 1991; Waters, 2001). R. Patrick Solomon (1991) found that, despite their voluntary minority status, West Indian students in Toronto exhibit a strong oppositional identity because they have internalized racial discrimination in Canadian society. Findings from Mary Waters's 2001 study of second-generation West Indians in New York City are also somewhat consistent with the oppositional culture framework: those respondents whose reference group was African Americans tended to perform more poorly in school, whereas those who maintained a strong immigrant identity achieved higher educational success.

See also Educational Psychology and Psychologists; Psychology and Psychologists: Race Issues


Blumer, Herbert. "Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position." Pacific Sociological Review 1, no. 1 (1958): 37.

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Bobo, Lawrence D., James Kluegel, and Ryan A. Smith. a"Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a 'Kinder, Gentler,' Anti-Black Ideology." In Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change, edited by Steven A. Tuch and Jack K. Martin, pp. 93-120. Greenwood, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.

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Waters, Mary. Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

camille z. charles (2005)

kimberly c. torres (2005)

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Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race

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