Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.

October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.

October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.

October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.

October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.

October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.

October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.

October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.

October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”

October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?

October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.

October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.

October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.

October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.

October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.

October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.

October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.

October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.

Follow us

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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