60-Second Mind

The Persistence of Racism

Recent research concludes that although people predict they will react negatively to racial slurs, their behavior proves otherwise. Christie Nicholson reports

[Below is the original script. But a few changes may have been made during the recording of this audio podcast.]

With the historic inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama next week, we reach a momentous moment in the fight against prejudice.

Yet, we also know that prejudice remains.

And recent research in the journal Science has uncovered a curious paradox. While many of us say we’d react negatively to a racial slur, many of us, in practice, do not react negatively at all. In fact, many may support it.

In an experiment nonblack, multicultural subjects witness a white student (an actor) responding with a racial slur when a black student (also an actor) accidentally bumps their knee.

Subjects were then given an emotional test, and most were found to be unaffected, even though in a separate experiment subjects claimed they’d be very distressed if they’d overheard a racial slur. In addition, even though subjects predicted they would choose the black student over the racist white student to be their partner for a project, a majority, after hearing the racial slur, chose the white student. (And this choice was made more often than in the control condition where the subjects heard no racial slur.)

Researchers conclude that while many think and say they are egalitarian, there appear to be negative, perhaps subconscious, beliefs that still hold us in their angry grip.

—Christie Nicholson

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