We tend to discriminate by favoring familiar
In-group favoritism by helpful people may be the most common kind of discrimination, two psychologists suggest.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Anthony Greenwald is known for digging out people’s unconscious biases. Now the University of Washington psychology professor is exploring unintentional discrimination by people who are being selectively helpful. You don’t have to be a bad person to discriminate.
Of late, the news has focused on jerks making statements most people condemn, whether it’s applying a nasty name to the president or recoiling at a football draft pick’s celebratory kiss.
Cases like those grab attention, but they don’t affect lives the way everyday discrimination does, and a lot of that discrimination is done unaware. There has been an explosion in recent years of understanding of the degree to which people’s actions and reactions are on autopilot.
That revolution includes a tool Greenwald developed with fellow researchers, the Implicit-Association Test, which measures unconscious bias. When we spoke at his office this week, Greenwald said people whose test results turn up biases are always protesting that they are good people and not prejudiced.
That prompted him to review the research on discrimination, and what he found was that nearly all of it was focused on hostility toward the object of discrimination. But the culture and laws in the United States have changed greatly. Most people and institutions today reject overt hostility toward historically disadvantaged groups, and yet, statistics and studies find ongoing discrimination in many areas of life.
Some of that discrimination happens when people act on stereotypes or out of hostility, but not all of it.
Greenwald looked more deeply at research on discrimination that happens without negative intent. In an article just published in the American Psychologist online, he and Thomas F. Pettigrew, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, posit that discrimination without malice is by far the most common kind in the U.S. today.
Everyone knows about in-group favoritism. People tend to prefer and be nicer to people they believe to be like themselves. People in the same profession, the same gender, the same race. The categories are limitless. Greenwald says it is this leaning that leads to a kind of discrimination that helps the in-group with no intent to harm anyone else — except that it does do harm. It harms individuals and it perpetuates inequality when it is practiced by a dominant group.
He noted studies of helping behavior, in which whites and blacks were set up to be in need of help. White test subjects, who didn’t know they were being studied, more often helped when the person in distress was white.
Studies of homebuying, apartment-hunting and job searches consistently find discrimination, especially against black and Hispanic people. Greenwald thinks much of that happens not because the people doing the hiring, selling or leasing are hostile toward blacks or Hispanics, but because they are more favorable to white people.
He mentioned studies of tipping that found white taxi drivers and white waiters get bigger tips than black ones. “This is something anybody can do, and do without thinking about it,” he said.
It’s an identity bond in action, he said. When we feel that identity bond, he said, we’re just more ready to help, whether it’s someone who went to the same school, or someone who lives in our neighborhood. And he said segregation by race in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces magnifies the in-group effect.
He said doctors have been found to give extra treatment above standard care to people they have some connection to. They’re not depriving anyone of help, just going a bit further for some, he said, and those patients tend to be white because the doctors and their social circles are mostly white.
And people tend to see in-group helping as fair and normal, usually unaware of any larger consequences. He’d like to see more people have “an appreciation that you are a good person, but you don’t distribute your help equally.”
Money and power tend to stay in the largest and most powerful group. In the U.S. that means white people. The research Greenwald examined was mostly about black and white interactions, because that’s the most studied relationship.
I asked if black people favored blacks or Latinos favored other Latinos. He said that it isn’t a balanced equation. In Seattle in particular, he said, the black population is so small that black people have more opportunities to help white people than other black people.
And he said people in privileged positions tend to benefit even more because other people are nicer to them. Remember the study about tipping? Well, it found that black people also gave higher tips to white taxi drivers and restaurant servers than to black ones.
The status system we’ve inherited from previous generations perpetuates itself in multiple ways without most people giving it a thought.
Greenwald and his co-author conclude the most effective way to reduce unintentional discrimination would be to adopt policies that directly help “out groups.” That’s not easily done.
They wrote that while American attitudes have turned away from hostile discrimination, studies show white people also reject policies that directly help minority or immigrant groups. That’s not because of hostility, usually, but strong favoritism toward white people.
Greenwald told me: “I think these things will eventually change, but it will be a long, slow process.”
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @jerrylarge
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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