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Study: We love a good personal responsibility message — when the audience is black

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Americans really like to hear speeches that tell audiences they themselves, not systemic issues, are to blame for their problems — just as long as those audiences are black.

That's the result of new research conducted by Phia Salter of Texas A&M University and her colleagues, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Salter explained in a press release about the results that she was inspired to look into this topic by a 2008 Father's Day address by Barack Obama that slammed black fathers. ("More than half of all black children live in single-parent households," he told a predominantly African-American congregation. "Too many fathers are MIA, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.")

Salter suspected that it wasn't just the general appreciation of the tough-love message about the disproportionate number of absentee black fathers (a framing of statistics that has since been challenged and largely debunked) that made so many people applaud the speech. Instead, she thought it likely had to do with the fact that listeners outside the church appreciated hearing this message of individual blame directed at a group of African Americans.

"We were interested in whether the individual blame account of missing black fathers gained attention because it was given in front of a black audience," she said. "We thought it may not be just what President Obama said in his speech, but to whom he said it that mattered."

The research confirmed her instincts: People indeed preferred the very same individual blame messages when they were given to black audiences compared with white audiences.

The study

The researchers divided their study into three parts. Each experiment included between 100 and 150 subjects, 68 to 75 percent of whom identified as white, while the remainder identified as African American, Asian American, American Indian/Alaskan native, or "other."

In the first two experiments, participants were asked about their impressions of the beliefs of eight groups (black/African Americans, white/European Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, Asian/Asian Americans, Democrats, Republicans, men, and women) about the fairness of society, and about the extent to which different groups wanted or needed to hear messages about individual blame or systemic blame.

Taken together, the results revealed that participants 1) believed that blacks, more so than other groups, reject the idea that society is fair, and 2) believed that black audiences "need to hear" messages about how individual failings versus systemic issues are to blame for their problems.

In the third experiment, the researchers asked participants to read and respond to an excerpt from a speech. Some were told it was delivered to a white audience, and some were told it was delivered to a black audience.

What they read was actually an excerpt from Obama's 2008 Father's Day remarks. But while some participants got the original text emphasizing personal blame and responsibility, others got an edited version tweaked to emphasize a systemic account of missing fathers.

  • "Individual blame" version: "But we also need African-American fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it's the courage to raise one. We need families to raise our children."
  • "System blame" version: "But we also need people to realize that the breakdown of African-American families is due to a broken system. As a nation, it is our job to create a fairer playing field and foster an environment in which all fathers can raise their children. We need families to raise our children."

Study participants were asked to rate their agreement with statements including "How would you rate the speech overall?" "How much do you like the speech?" and "How important is the message of the speech?"

The results: They consistently preferred the individual blame message when they believed it was given to a black audience versus when it was given to a white audience.

Social Psychology and Personality Science

(Social Psychology and Personality Science)

The researchers said the results couldn't be explained by an overall belief in individual responsibility or a simple preference for politicians who do not pander. If that were the case, the preferences would have been the same for black and white audiences.

Rather, they concluded, "We interpret these results as an example of a sociocultural mechanism that perpetuates system justifying messages. That is, whites' views may not need adjusting because their discrepant views of society do not threaten the status quo."

Salter said the results — that people think black Americans have a tendency to blame the system too much and are in need of messages that counteract their perceptions of injustice — were troubling for two reasons. First, "By minimizing or ignoring the ways in which structural inequality persists, we are unlikely to search for, endorse or enact solutions that might address these forms of societal problems." Second, she said, targeting black Americans with the idea that they caused their own circumstances by not working hard enough "reinforces the idea that Blacks are ultimately responsible for their own disadvantage, even when structural inequalities persist."

These structural inequalities Salter refer too — often dubbed "systemic racism" — are the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. "Systemic" distinguishes what's happening here from individual racism or overt discrimination, and refers to the way this operates in major parts of US society: the economy, politics, education, and more. It's a widely accepted way to analyze why there's still so much inequality in American life. But, according to the results of this study, many may prefer that black Americans don't hear about it, but blame themselves instead.

The paper, "Who Needs Individual Responsibility? Audience Race and Message Content Influence Third-Party Evaluations of Political Messages" by Phia S. Salter, Kelly A. Hirsch, Rebecca J. Schlegel, and Luyen T. Thai, was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science online on July 8.

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