clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.

The challenge for anti-racists looking for solutions in Trump’s America.

Anti-Trump protesters demonstrate across the US. Mark Makela/Getty Images

In 2016, researchers stumbled on a radical tactic for reducing another person’s bigotry: a frank, brief conversation.

The study, authored by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley, looked at how simple conversations can help combat anti-transgender attitudes. In the research, people canvassed the homes of more than 500 voters in South Florida. The canvassers, who could be trans or not, asked the voters to simply put themselves in the shoes of trans people — to understand their problems — through a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation. The hope was that the brief discussion could lead people to reevaluate their biases.

It worked. The trial found not only that voters’ anti-trans attitudes declined but that they remained lower three months later, showing an enduring result. And those voters’ support for laws that protect trans people from discrimination increased, even when they were presented with counterarguments for such laws.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this research since Election Day. After Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, it is clear that the prejudiced views of a lot of Americans helped elect to the White House a man who’s repeatedly made racist, offensive statements. Not only did Trump build his campaign largely on fears of immigrants and Muslims, but based on a lot of polls and surveys, he also attracted the voters who reported, by far, the highest levels of racial resentment and other prejudiced views.

One telling study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump. That suggests there’s a significant racial element to support for Trump.

But just noting these racial attitudes and biases did not seem to have a huge impact on the election. Despite bigoted policy proposals that at one point even called for banning an entire religious group from the US, and the media’s constant reminders that Trump is racist, Trump won. Clearly, a lot of US voters either shared Trump’s prejudiced views or, at the very least, didn’t find such ideas to be fundamental deal breakers. That suggests there’s a lot of racism — or at least the enabling of it — in America, perhaps even more than one would think in the modern age.

So how can we reduce this type of prejudice? The canvassing study provides a model for anti-trans attitudes, but can it be applied to other kinds of bigotry, such as racism, that might be more entrenched in the US? And even if we do embrace the canvassing model or something similar, how can we ensure that the conversations don’t lead to a backlash — the kind of defensive posturing and denial of racism that might lead even more people to support candidates like Trump?

In talking with researchers and looking at the studies on this in 2016, I found that it is possible to reduce people’s racial anxiety and prejudices. And the canvassing idea was regarded as very promising. But, researchers cautioned, the process of reducing people’s racism will take time and, crucially, empathy.

This speaks to the point Margaret Renkl made on Monday in the New York Times: “If … you’re a white liberal whose goal is to foster a more equitable culture, you need to stop yelling ‘Racist!’ at anyone who doesn’t see the world exactly as you do. Somehow you need to find enough common ground for a real conversation about race. Very few people are stupid or irredeemably mean. They’ll listen to what you have to say if they trust you’ll listen to what they have to say back.”

It’s the direct opposite of the kind of culture the internet has fostered — typically focused on calling out racists and shaming them in public. This doesn’t work. And as much as it might seem like a lost cause to understand the perspectives of people who may qualify as racist, understanding where they come from is a needed step to being able to speak to them in a way that will help reduce the racial biases they hold.

The coded language that many white Americans hear

So how do we have a better conversation around these issues, one that can actually reduce people’s racial prejudices and anxieties?

The first thing to understand is how white Americans, especially in rural areas, hear accusations of racism. While terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias” intend to point out systemic biases in America, for white Americans they’re often seen as coded slurs. These terms don’t signal to them that they’re doing something wrong, but that their supposedly racist attitudes (which they would deny having at all) are a justification for lawmakers and other elites to ignore their problems.

Imagine, for example, a white man who lost a factory job due to globalization and saw his sister die from a drug overdose due to the opioid epidemic — situations that aren’t uncommon today. He tries to complain about his circumstances. But his concerns are downplayed by a politician or racial justice activist, who instead points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown folks if you look at broad socioeconomic measures.

Maybe he does have some level of white privilege. But that doesn’t take away from the serious problems he sees in his world today.

This is how many white Americans, particularly in working-class and rural areas, view the world today. So when they hear politicians and journalists call them racist or remind them about their privilege, they feel like elites are trying to distract from the serious problems in their lives and grant advantages to other groups of people. When Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called half of Trump voters “deplorable,” she made this message explicit.

People ride on a wagon in Kentucky. Mario Tama/Getty Images

“Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” said Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”

Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, provided an apt analogy for white rural Americans’ feeling of neglect: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, people — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action.

As a result, Hochschild told me that rural white Americans “feel like a minority group. They feel like a disappearing group. Both minority and invisible.”

One can pick the facts here — particularly since black and Latino Americans still trail white Americans in terms of wealth, income, and educational attainment. But this is how many white Americans feel, regardless of the facts.

So when they hear accusations of racism, they feel like what they see as the “real” issues — those that afflict them — are getting neglected. This, obviously, makes it difficult to raise issues of race at all with big segments of the population, because they’re often suspicious of the motives.

What’s more, accusations of racism can cause white Americans to become incredibly defensive — to the point that they might reinforce white supremacy. Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, described this phenomenon as “white fragility” in a groundbreaking 2011 paper:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

Most Americans, white people included, want to think that they’re not capable of racism — particularly after the civil rights movement, overt racism is widely viewed as unacceptable in American society. Yet racism, obviously, still exists. And when some white people are confronted with that reality, whether it’s accusations of racism against them personally or more broadly, they immediately become very defensive — even hostile.

“Most of us live in racial segregation,” DiAngelo told me. “Our teachers are white. Our role models are white. Our heroes and heroines are white. That insulation is very rarely challenged.” She added, “So when that reality is questioned, we don’t tend to handle it very well.”

DiAngelo’s paper explained that white Americans have a range of “triggers” that make them defensive about race, from suggestions that a person’s viewpoint is racialized to the rise of people of color into prominent leadership positions. All the triggers that she listed were present in 2016 — through President Barack Obama’s elections and Black Lives Matter protests against the dominance of white privilege.

Consider how often throughout the 2016 election people would respond to even the slightest suggestion of racism, whether in media or everyday life, with immediate vitriol, disdain, or dismissal. This, DiAngelo argued, is a defense mechanism to confronting questions about privilege. And it makes it difficult to have a reasonable conversation about race.

DiAngelo offered a telling example, from an anti-racism training session she facilitated:

One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.

This illustrates just how defensive people can get in the face of accusations of racism: Not only did the woman who faced the criticisms genuinely feel like she was having a heart attack, but the white people around her believed it was totally possible she was. This is the reality of trying to have a conversation about race in America.

We need to develop a way to have this conversation that doesn’t make some people feel condemned

The innate resistance and defensiveness to conversations about bigotry don’t mean that you should never talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, or other kinds of hate. But those conversations may have to be held more tactfully — positioning people into a more receptive position to hear what these problems are all about.

One key issue is that people want to feel heard before they can open their minds to other people’s points of view. “Democrats in particular need to go out of their way to reassure these groups that they are being respected, that they are being listened to,” Conner said.

That was crucial in Broockman and Kalla’s transgender canvassing study. In a traditional canvassing session, the canvasser does most of the talking — throwing out all sorts of statistics and reasons the person on the other side of the door should take a specific side on a certain issue. But in the transgender canvassing study, the person getting canvassed often did as much or even more of the talking.

As one example, consider an actual conversation from the study, as reported by Brian Resnick for Vox:

In the beginning of their conversation, Virginia asks Gustavo how likely he'd be to support transgender rights legislation. Gustavo says he wouldn't support it because he's worried about predatory men using the law as an opportunity to enter women's bathrooms.

Virginia asks why he feels that way.

"I'm from South America, and in South America we don't like fags," he tells her.

This next moment is crucial: Virginia doesn't jump on Gustavo for the slur, and instead says, "I'm gay," in a friendly manner. Gustavo doesn't recoil. Actually, he becomes more interested.

Gustavo and Virginia go on to discuss how much they love their partners, and how that love helps them overcome adversity. Gustavo tells Virginia that his wife is a disabled person. "God gave me the ability to love a disabled person," he says, and that taking care of one another is why love matters.

"That resonate a lots with me," Virginia responds. "For me, these laws, and including transgender people are about that. They're about how we treat one another."

Now that Gustavo is in a place where he's more open, Virginia asks him to imagine what the worst thing could happen if he used a bathroom with a transgender person. He admits he wouldn't be scared. Then comes the breakthrough.

"Listen, probably I was mistaken," he says of his original position on trans rights.

Virginia asks him again if he'd vote in favor of banning transgender discrimination. "In favor," he says.

Hochschild shared similar stories in her book. In one example, a woman tells Hochschild about her love for conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to people — feminists, environmentalists, and other liberals — that she felt belittled her and her lifestyle. As the woman explained, “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” She felt that these accusations overlooked many of the problems that rural white Americans faced — growing up poor, struggling to get a better education, and so on.

Because Hochschild, who’s liberal, didn’t immediately dismiss the woman’s comments and insult her, the two managed to have a frank conversation to reach a better understanding of each other. And the two continued talking as Hochschild wrote her book. From one simple exchange of empathy, it was possible to have more frank conversations.

“You can turn your political alarm system off without jeopardizing who you are and what you believe,” Hochschild told me. “And you can learn something about the person at the other end of the conversation that’s going to be of profound importance.”

These stories, from the canvassing study and Hochschild’s research, demonstrate a key point: People don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.

Actually having these conversations will be incredibly difficult and time-consuming

Of course, there is a balance to strike here. Insofar as absolutely any mention of racism triggers a backlash among some people, that may just be an unavoidable consequence of a long-neglected but necessary conversation. After all, we can’t just ignore the real racial disparities in policing, the criminal justice system, health, wealth, housing, and nearly every other aspect of American life until everyone is ready to talk about these issues openly. We could be waiting forever if we did that.

And the work of reducing racial bias can’t fall solely on people of color. White Americans need to work within their own communities to combat prejudice.

Thankfully, researchers have come up with several ideas that strike the right balance.

One approach is to pursue certain policies in a race-neutral manner. For example, equipping police with body cameras has become a prominent idea in response to the police shootings of black men over the past few years. But the inherent idea behind body cameras doesn’t have to be racial — it can just be about generally holding police accountable, no matter whom they’re interacting with. And indeed, polls have found that support for body cameras on police officers in general hovers above 90 percent.

But this approach has its limits. Some issues have an explicit racial element to them, so the conversation about these problems has to bring in racism at some point. In the face of resistance, then, actually reducing people’s racial anxieties — rather than glossing over them — is necessary.

This will require conversations. Maybe it will be through canvassing by activists, much like the transgender study. Maybe churches and schools can take on public education campaigns. Maybe these and other civic institutions can facilitate public forums in which people can openly discuss these problems.

Donald Trump holds a rally in Arizona. Charlie Leight/Getty Images

But how, exactly, should those conversations and campaigns take form — in a way that can meaningfully reduce or eliminate racial prejudice?

“We can’t pretend we’re post-racial, because that’s absurd,” said Rachel Godsil, co-founder and director of research at the Perception Institute. “But we need to work past the idea that our divisions will prevent us from coming together, from solving problems collectively.”

In The Science of Equality, Godsil and her co-authors proposed several tactics that seem, based on the research, promising: presenting people with examples that break stereotypes, asking them to think about people of color as individuals rather than as a group, tasking them with taking on first-person perspectives of people of color, and increasing contact between people of different races. All of these interventions appear to reduce subconscious racial biases, while interracial contact appears most promising for reducing racial anxiety more broadly.

Of course, interracial contact can be hard to achieve in communities that are racially homogeneous — in other words, a lot of rural white communities. But the researchers note that even indirect contact — for example, knowing that one of your white neighbors is friends with a person of color — can reduce prejudice, suggesting there are ways to reduce racial anxiety without direct contact.

Godsil and her team also put forward tactics that can help people limit actions based on racial biases, such as getting people to slow down in their decision-making and teaching them about how subconscious processes can influence their impulses — even on issues unrelated to race — in order to push them to question their own objectivity. The research suggests these ideas have potential, but they generally seem to require that people are genuinely willing to reduce their biased behavior and actions.

A rally for Donald Trump in Georgia. Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

More broadly, people need to be shown that people of different races can live and thrive in diverse communities. Trump supporters are clearly worried, as the earlier study found, that white Americans are losing status in the country. But there are plenty of examples — in big, diverse cities like New York City, for example — that show they don’t have to look at race relations in a zero-sum manner in which white people lose and everyone else wins. The empirical research, after all, shows that more immigration can ultimately lift up the entire country’s economy, benefiting everyone.

“There’s an unfortunate lack of understanding that interactions across groups can be positive and enrich rather than divide,” Godsil said. “That’s what people who do live in pretty homogeneous parts of the country just don’t know. They’ve never experienced it.”

So how do you get people to see that diversity isn’t a threat to them? Godsil pointed to the transgender canvassing study as one example. Perhaps nonconfrontational conversations with people of color in which both parties share their lived experiences could go a long way to demonstrating that different racial groups don’t have to be at odds. And white Americans could engage in these types of dialogues with other white people to help open their minds to another perspective.

But there’s other ways too, from creating local spaces in which people can talk about race issues and air out their fears to more formal public education campaigns.

The key to these conversations, though, is empathy. And it will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many, many conversations in several settings over possibly many years. It won’t be easy, but if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial attitudes, it may be the only way.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.