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

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.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

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.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


Follow 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.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

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.