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Intelligent people as racist as others, study finds

Aug. 13, 2013
Courtesy of the American Sociological Association
and World Science staff

Smart peo­ple are just as rac­ist as their less in­tel­li­gent peer­s—they’re just bet­ter at con­ceal­ing their prej­u­dice, ac­cord­ing to a Uni­vers­ity of Mich­i­gan stu­dy.

“High-abil­ity whites are less likely to re­port prej­u­diced at­ti­tudes and more likely to say they sup­port ra­cial in­tegra­t­ion in prin­ci­ple,” said Geof­frey Wodtke, a doc­tor­al can­di­date in so­ci­ol­o­gy. “But they are no more likely than lower-abil­ity whites to sup­port open hous­ing laws and are less likely to sup­port school bus­ing and af­firm­a­tive ac­tion pro­grams.”

Wodtke pre­s­ented his find­ings Aug. 11 at the an­nu­al Meet­ing of the Amer­i­can So­ci­o­lo­g­i­cal As­socia­t­ion, in San Fran­cisco.

He an­a­lyzed da­ta on the ra­cial at­ti­tudes of more than 20,000 white re­spon­dents from a na­t­ionally repre­s­entative study called the Gen­er­al So­cial Sur­vey. He ex­am­ined how their cog­ni­tive abil­ity, as meas­ured by a widely used test of ver­bal in­tel­li­gence, was linked with their at­ti­tudes about African-A­mer­i­cans, and about dif­fer­ent poli­cies de­signed to re­dress ra­cial seg­rega­t­ion and dis­crimina­t­ion.

Re­spon­dents were about 47 years old at the time of the in­ter­view, on av­er­age, and had com­plet­ed 12.9 years of educa­t­ion. They cor­rectly an­swered an av­er­age of about six of the 10 cog­ni­tive abil­ity test ques­tions, Wodtke said.

Ac­cord­ing to Wodtke, the broader im­plica­t­ion is that rac­ism and prej­u­dice don’t simply come about as a re­sult of low men­tal ca­pa­ci­ties or de­fi­cien­cies in so­cial­iz­a­tion. Rath­er, they re­sult from the need of dom­i­nant groups to le­git­i­mize and pro­tect their priv­i­leged so­cial po­si­tion.

“More in­tel­li­gent mem­bers of the dom­i­nant group are just bet­ter at le­git­i­mizing and pro­tecting their priv­i­leged po­si­tion than less in­tel­li­gent mem­bers,” he said. “In mod­ern Amer­i­ca, where blacks are mo­bi­lized to chal­lenge ra­cial in­e­qual­ity, this means that in­tel­li­gent whites say—and may in fact truly be­lieve—all the right things about ra­cial equal­ity in prin­ci­ple, but they just don’t ac­tu­ally do an­y­thing that would elim­i­nate the priv­i­leges to which they have be­come ac­cus­tomed.

“In many cases, they have be­come so ac­cus­tomed to these priv­i­leges that they be­come ‘in­vis­i­ble,’ and any ef­fort to point these priv­i­leges out or to elim­i­nate them strikes in­tel­li­gent whites as a grave in­jus­tice.”


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Smart people are just as racist as their less intelligent peers — they’re just better at concealing their prejudice, according to a University of Michigan study. “High-ability whites are less likely to report prejudiced attitudes and more likely to say they support racial integration in principle,” said Geoffrey Wodtke, a doctoral candidate in sociology. “But they are no more likely than lower-ability whites to support open housing laws and are less likely to support school busing and affirmative action programs.” Wodtke will present his findings at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health, supported his research. He analyzed data on the racial attitudes of more than 20,000 white respondents from the nationally representative General Social Survey. He examined how their cognitive ability, as measured by a widely used test of verbal intelligence, was linked with their attitudes about African-Americans, and about different policies designed to redress racial segregation and discrimination. Respondents were about 47 years old at the time of the interview, on average, and had completed 12.9 years of education. They correctly answered an average of about six of the 10 cognitive ability test questions, Wodtke said. According to Wodtke, the broader implication is that racism and prejudice don’t simply come about as a result of low mental capacities or deficiencies in socialization. Rather, they result from the need of dominant groups to legitimize and protect their privileged social position. “More intelligent members of the dominant group are just better at legitimizing and protecting their privileged position than less intelligent members,” he said. “In modern America, where blacks are mobilized to challenge racial inequality, this means that intelligent whites say — and may in fact truly believe — all the right things about racial equality in principle, but they just don’t actually do anything that would eliminate the privileges to which they have become accustomed. “In many cases, they have become so accustomed to these privileges that they become ‘invisible,’ and any effort to point these privileges out or to eliminate them strikes intelligent whites as a grave injustice.”