Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

segregation-beach

Segregation on a New Jersey beach. (Photo: Tom Hart/Flickr)

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

• August 01, 2014 • 6:00 AM

Segregation on a New Jersey beach. (Photo: Tom Hart/Flickr)

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.

Remember all that talk about how the United States is becoming a post-racial society? New research throws cold water on the concept, suggesting that, at least on an unconscious level, Americans retain their belief in a race-based hierarchy.

In a large-scale study measuring implicit judgments, Americans—not surprisingly—showed a strong liking for their own racial group. But beyond that bias, their answers revealed a consistent set of racial rankings, with whites being most associated with positive thoughts, followed by Asians.

Surprisingly, African-Americans did not end up at the bottom of the list. It appears that unfortunate place has now been reserved in our collective psyches for Hispanics.

Our desire to maintain a positive social identity leads us to favor our own group and consider it superior to others.

The research team, led by University of Virginia psychologist Jordan Axt, found similar hierarchies for religion (with Christianity receiving the most positive associations) and age (the same goes for children). Their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that if you are an older, Hispanic Muslim, you’re at the bottom of the social ladder.

Axt and his colleagues used data from the Project Implicit website, in which visitors are invited to take a variety of tests designed to reveal both their overt and underlying beliefs. Their first study utilized data from 97,641 American citizens or residents who visited the site between June 2012 and April 2013. Sixty-one percent were female; their mean age was 30.

After disclosing their own demographic information, all participated in one version of the Implicit Association Test, which is designed to measure the automatic, unconscious associations we make between people, objects, and ideas. In essence, a series of words conveying good or bad feelings are paired with faces of people of different races. Slower responses to the pairing of good words like “love” and “pleasant” with, say, black faces are considered an indication of negative attitudes toward blacks.

“For participants of all racial and ethnic groups, the order of implicit racial preferences was the same,” the researchers report. “(All) exhibited the most positive associations for their own racial group. In addition, their implicit evaluations of the remaining racial groups always placed white people first, followed by Asian, black and then Hispanic people.”

The second study, featuring 353,048 participants, paired positive and negative words with terms commonly associated with various religions, such as “Gospel” for Christianity, “Koran” for Islam, and “Karma” for Buddhism.

The results were very similar to the race study. Members of each faith “exhibited the most positive associations for their own religion,” the researchers write. “In addition, their implicit evaluations of the remaining religions always placed Christianity first, followed by Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism (the tests featured one or the other of those two), and then Islam.

In the final study, which focused on age, “implicit evaluations placed children highest,” Axt and his colleagues report, “followed by young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults.” This suggests even privileged male Christians will see a loss of status as they enter their senior-citizen years.

Axt and his colleagues suspect these findings reflect two different psychological processes. Our desire to maintain a positive social identity leads us to favor our own group and consider it superior to others. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, we have a bias toward seeing society as just and fair.

The first process explains why our own ethnic or religious group comes out on top; the second, known as system justification theory, explains why the people with the most power are also implicitly viewed as the most worthy.

There are several caveats to these conclusions. Some critics have questioned whether the Implicit Association Test is truly a valid indicator of racial prejudice. Also, the data was not collected from a nationally representative sample.

But that said, the number of participants was quite large, and the IAT is widely accepted in the research psychology community. These results may not be definitive, but they provide compelling evidence that a truly post-racial America has yet to materialize.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.