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Whites believe they are main victims of racism today: study

May 24, 2011
Courtesy of Tufts University
and World Science staff

Whites be­lieve they’ve re­placed blacks as the main vic­tims of ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion in the U.S., though whites are the bet­ter off group by most meas­ures, a study in­di­cates.

The find­ings show Amer­i­ca has­n’t achieved the “post-ra­cial” so­ci­e­ty that many hoped for in the wake of Barack Oba­ma’s elec­tion, the re­search­ers say. 

Both whites and blacks agree that an­ti-black rac­ism has de­creased over the last 60 years, the study in­di­cates, but whites be­lieve rac­ism against them has grown and is now a big­ger prob­lem. Whites tend to see ra­cial equal­ity as a ze­ro sum game, in which gains for one group mean losses for the oth­er, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers.

“It’s a pret­ty sur­pris­ing find­ing when you think of the wide range of dis­par­i­ties that still ex­ist in so­ci­e­ty, most of which show black Amer­i­cans with worse out­comes than whites in ar­eas such as in­come, home own­er­ship, health and em­ploy­men­t,” said psy­chol­o­gist Sam­u­el Som­mers of Tufts Un­ivers­ity in Med­ford, Mass. Som­mers is a co-author of the study, pub­lished in the May 2011 is­sue of the jour­nal Per­spec­tives on Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Som­mers and co-author Mi­chael I. Nor­ton of Har­vard Busi­ness School asked a na­t­ion­wide sam­ple of 208 blacks and 209 whites to in­di­cate the ex­tent to which they felt blacks and whites were the tar­gets of dis­crimina­t­ion in each dec­ade from the 1950s to the 2000s. A scale of 1 to 10 was used, with 1 be­ing “not at all” and 10 be­ing “very much.”

White and black es­ti­mates of bi­as in the 1950s were sim­i­lar. Both groups ac­knowl­edged lit­tle rac­ism against whites at that time but substan­ti­al rac­ism against blacks. 

Re­spon­dents in the new study gen­er­ally agreed that rac­ism against blacks has de­creased, though whites saw it as hav­ing de­clined faster than blacks did, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Whites be­lieved rac­ism against them has mean­while grown sig­nif­i­cantly. On av­er­age, they rat­ed an­ti-white bi­as as more prev­a­lent in the 2000s than an­ti-black bi­as by more than one point. Moreo­ver, some 11 per­cent of whites gave an­ti-white bi­as the max­i­mum rat­ing of 10 com­pared to only 2 per­cent of whites who rat­ed an­ti-black bi­as a 10. Blacks re­ported only a mod­est in­crease in their per­cep­tions of “re­verse rac­ism.”

“These da­ta are the first to dem­on­strate that not only do whites think more prog­ress has been made to­ward equal­ity than do blacks, but whites al­so now be­lieve that this prog­ress is linked to a new ine­qual­ity – at their ex­pense,” wrote Nor­ton and Som­mers.

The be­lief that an­ti-white bi­as is more prev­a­lent than an­ti-black bi­as has im­plica­t­ions for fu­ture pub­lic pol­i­cy de­bates and be­hav­ior­al sci­ence re­search, say the au­thors. They note that claims of re­verse rac­ism, while not new, have fig­ured in a grow­ing num­ber of high-profile Su­preme Court cases.


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Whites believe they’ve replaced blacks as the main victims of racial discrimination in the U.S., though they are still better off than blacks, a study indicates. The findings show America hasn’t achieved the “post-racial” society that some envisioned in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, say the researchers, from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. and Harvard Business School. Both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, the study indicates, but whites believe racism against them has grown and is now a bigger problem. Whites tend to see racial equality as a zero sum game, in which gains for one group mean losses for the other, according to the researchers. “It’s a pretty surprising finding when you think of the wide range of disparities that still exist in society, most of which show black Americans with worse outcomes than whites in areas such as income, home ownership, health and employment,” said Tufts psychologist Samuel Sommers, co-author of the report in the May 2011 issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Sommers and co-author Michael I. Norton of Harvard asked a nationwide sample of 208 blacks and 209 whites to indicate the extent to which they felt blacks and whites were the targets of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. A scale of 1 to 10 was used, with 1 being “not at all” and 10 being “very much.” White and black estimates of bias in the 1950s were similar. Both groups acknowledged little racism against whites at that time but substantial racism against blacks. Respondents in the new study also generally agreed that racism against blacks has decreased, though whites saw it as having declined faster than blacks did, the investigators said. Whites believed racism against them has meanwhile grown significantly. On average, they rated anti-white bias as more prevalent in the 2000s than anti-black bias by more than one point. Moreover, some 11 percent of whites gave anti-white bias the maximum rating of 10 compared to only 2 percent of whites who rated anti-black bias a 10. Blacks reported only a modest increase in their perceptions of “reverse racism.” “These data are the first to demonstrate that not only do whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do blacks, but whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality – at their expense,” wrote Norton and Sommers. The belief that anti-white bias is more prevalent than anti-black bias has implications for future public policy debates and behavioral science research, say the authors. They note that claims of reverse racism, while not new, have figured in a growing number of high-profile Supreme Court cases.