February 11, 2009
Five Questions for John Dovidio, PhD
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John Dovidio, a professor at Yale University, has studied issues of social power and social relations, both between groups and between individuals. His work explores both conscious (explicit) and unconscious (implicit) influences on how people think about, feel about and behave toward others based on group membership. He has conducted research on “aversive racism,” a contemporary subtle form of prejudice, and on techniques for reducing conscious and unconscious biases.
To mark Black History Month, the American Psychological Association spoke with Dr. Dovidio about racial attitudes in the United States, particularly in light of the election of the first African-American president.
APA. After a two-year campaign that culminated in the election of the first African-American president in American history, have race relations and attitudes changed in this country?
Dr. Dovidio: President Obama’s election is the result of a general, steady decline of racial prejudice over time, coupled with Obama’s efforts in his campaign to transcend race in ways that minimized the effects of traditional stereotypes and racism that may have been directed toward him. Attitudes toward Obama changed because people got to see him as an exceptional person during an exceptional time. His election has the potential to reduce prejudice in dramatic, unprecedented ways. Nevertheless, attitudes toward blacks as a whole will not change overnight simply because of the election of a black president. Attitudes, particularly racial prejudice, which serves a number of psychological and material functions, often have a basic core that is resistant to change -- but people are able to incorporate new information and change their attitudes with new experiences. Obama’s election offers American unique and profound new racial experiences.
APA. What are the key psychological factors that shape racial attitudes, and how ingrained are those attitudes? Can people with deep-seated racial prejudice ever completely change those attitudes?
Dr. Dovidio: Attitudes develop with the accumulation of experience and associations over time. They are inherently functional – they help us orient ourselves to others and the environment in ways perceived to benefit us. The world would be chaos if we changed our attitudes toward people and objects too easily. Thus, attitudes typically evolve slowly, often becoming more complex and nuanced over time; rapid, wholesale change in attitudes is rare. One of the best ways to change attitudes is through intergroup contact. Attitudes are not simply about the way you think about a group; they are also about how you feel about a group. In America, whites have been able to change their minds about racism faster than they have been able to change their deep-seated, and often unconscious, feelings. The vast majority of white Americans currently know we should be non-prejudiced and egalitarian. But the emotional impact, the “gut” impact, that race has on people still lags behind. So, to truly change attitudes at their core requires direct interracial experiences that are positive and personal, and which replace feelings of fear, anxiety and with those of empathy, connection and respect for members of another group.
The power of intergroup contact to change people’s hearts as well as their minds represents the promise of Obama’s presidency for improving race relations in a lasting way. Intergroup contact does not have to be immediate and face-to-face to improve intergroup attitudes. “Virtual contact” through the media can also be beneficial. White Americans, who previously had limited interracial experience will now see a black man on a daily basis. And that black man will be seen to represent America and all its people. These contact experiences will change racial attitudes and stereotypes at a very basic level.
APA: Your research has focused on power and social relations. With the election of an African-American president, has that power now shifted? And if so, what behavioral changes might we expect to see – not just at the macro level but in people’s everyday lives?
Dr. Dovidio: Power hasn’t shifted at all. Obama is the exception. Nevertheless, for several reasons, his election can be a critical stimulus for creating a greater balance of power in the United States socially, economically and politically. First, he has repeatedly asserted that he is the president for all Americans, and he seeks fairness an opportunity for members of all groups. Creating new and fairer opportunities should especially benefit members of groups who have been confronted, both historically and in their contemporary experience, with barriers of racism. Second, his daily presence as the nation’s leader will help dispel stereotypes and combat the forces of prejudice in ways that will help reduce the biases that have prevented blacks and other traditionally disadvantaged groups from achieving their full potential. He will make people more aware of the arbitrariness of race and its role as a barrier to success. And third, his accomplishment will have a historical impact on the aspirations, ambition and ultimate achievements of blacks and other people of color. People see the presence or absence of members of their group in certain roles (e.g., political leaders) and domains (e.g., certain academic disciplines) as a cue of whether they belong there or not. Thus, Obama’s monumental achievement will give members of underrepresented groups not only a sense of hope but also motivation and a direction to succeed. The first step to success is imagining that it is possible; Obama is the model that it is possible. His election will have a profound effect on generations of black Americans, and, hopefully, on members of other traditionally disadvantaged groups, as well.
It is important to note that power is not always zero-sum -- one group wins and the other group loses. Having a society in which members of all groups aspire for success and achieve their potential benefits us all and makes our society stronger.
APA: In most social situations, overt racism – in the form of verbal insults or outright exclusion -- is no longer tolerated. Yet few would argue that Americans are no longer racist. Could you explain your theories of “aversive racism” and its impact on interracial interactions?
Dr. Dovidio: The aversive racism framework suggests that a number of normal processes contribute to the development of intergroup biases. We generally see people in “our” group in a more positive light than people in another group. In our society, we automatically classify people by race. In addition, in our culture, whites have been associated with positive qualities (e.g., social and political power), whereas the media have fostered negative associations with blacks, linking them to poverty and crime. Consequently, most white Americans develop more negative feelings and beliefs about blacks.
At the same time, we have also grown up in a society that says all are created equal and has fairness as a core value. We also know it is not good to be prejudiced.
How do these conflicting forces get reconciled? At a conscious level, most whites embrace these egalitarian values in a very sincere way. But because of the basic, virtually universal, psychological processes that lead to bias, most whites also unconsciously harbor negative feelings towards blacks. Recent techniques, such as the Implicit Association Test, demonstrate the pervasiveness of unconscious racial biases among white who say and likely truly believe that they are not prejudiced.
This combination of being nonprejudiced consciously but possessing bias unconsciously produces subtle, rather than blatant, discrimination. Aversive racists typically don’t discriminate against a black person in situations where right and wrong are clearly defined. To discriminate in that situation would be obvious to other people and yourself; aversive racists don’t want to appear and don’t want to be racially biased. However, because of their unconscious negative feelings and beliefs, aversive racists will discriminate, but primarily in situations which right and wrong are not clearly defined or in which they can justify or rationalize a negative response on the basis of some factor other than race. Thus, discrimination that disadvantages blacks will occur, but in a way that permits the denial of racial motivations. Aversive racists have a good set of values; the problem is they’re not as good as they think they are.
APA: As the demographics of our nation evolve, “minorities” will soon be the majority. What changes do you foresee in people’s behavior as America becomes “less white?”
Dr. Dovidio: In terms of demographics, numbers can have two different effects. If you look at South Africa, where whites were a small proportion of population, apartheid was implemented to protect their power and privileged status. It represented blatant and virulent discrimination. However, the changing demographics with greater representations of people of color can produce more opportunities for interaction between members of different groups. In a truly multicultural society, there will be more intergroup contact, contact at an earlier age and more close friendships across group lines at every stage of life. These experiences can change how people think of race and combat racism at its roots. For me, the question is how will these demographic changes be shepherded in terms of social experiences and policies. Hopefully, it will be in ways that produce positive intergroup experiences rather than creating more barriers between us.
To sum up – both Obama's election and changing demographics provide enormous opportunities to change America and make it a truly more equal and just place. But those changes aren’t going to occur on their own, and they’re going to need wise policymakers and individuals in our society who have a clearer understanding of racism and its subtle as well as blatant implications to truly achieve the potential of America.
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