Tolerance Over Race Can Spread, Studies Find

November 7, 2008

This was supposed to be the election when hidden racism would rear its head. There was much talk of a “Bradley effect,” in which white voters would say one thing to pollsters and do another in the privacy of the booth; of a backlash in which the working-class whites whom Senator Barack Obama had labeled “bitter” would take their bitterness out on him.

But lost in all that anguished commentary, experts say, was an important recent finding from the study of prejudice: that mutual trust between members of different races can catch on just as quickly, and spread just as fast, as suspicion.
In some new studies, psychologists have been able to establish a close relationship between diverse pairs — black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino — in a matter of hours. That relationship immediately reduces conscious and unconscious bias in both people, and also significantly reduces prejudice toward the other group in each individual’s close friends.
This extended-contact effect, as it is called, travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.
“It’s important to remember that implicit biases are out there, absolutely; but I think that that’s only half the story,” said Linda R. Tropp, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “With broader changes in the society at large, people can also become more willing to reach across racial boundaries, and that goes for both minorities and whites.”
Mr. Obama’s election notwithstanding, institutional and individual prejudice still infects many areas of modern life, all experts agree. And this year, worries about the economy may have trumped any persistent concerns about race.
Yet to the extent that race played a role at all, it seemed to break more in Mr. Obama’s favor than against him. In voter surveys, most of the 17 percent of white voters who said race played some part in their decision pulled the lever for Mr. McCain; but among all voters who took race into account, Mr. Obama won the majority.
“I’m a Republican, and for me to vote for Obama I had to have a certain level of trust, that he was going to do the right thing, that he wasn’t going to be small-minded, that he wasn’t going to take care of one group of people over another,” said Nelson Montgomery, 50, a white sales executive in Buffalo who lived in a black neighborhood in Houston early in his career.
“What it came down to,” Mr. Montgomery said, “is that we’re so polarized right now, we’re only hearing from the fringe on either side, and we need more than anything to build trust. And I felt he could do that.”
In studies over the past few years, researchers have demonstrated how quickly trust can build in the right circumstances. To build a close relationship from scratch, psychologists have two strangers come together in four hourlong sessions. In the first, the two share their answers to a list of questions, from the innocuous “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” to the more serious, like “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”
In the second session, the pair competes against other pairs in a variety of timed parlor games. In the third, they talk about a variety of things, including why they are proud to be a member of their ethnic group, whether Latino, Asian, white or black. Finally, they take turns wearing a blindfold, while their partner gives instructions for navigating a maze.
Trivial as they may sound, those exercises create a relationship “that is as close as any relationship the person has,” said Art Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University who developed the program with his wife, Elaine N. Aron.
The new relationship can last months or longer, and it almost immediately lowers a person’s score on a variety of prejudice measures. Moreover, it significantly reduces anxiety during encounters with other members of that second group, as gauged by stress hormone levels in the saliva.
In a series of studies, Art Aron and others have found that, by generating a single cross-group friendship, they can quickly improve relations between cliques that have been pitted against one another in hostile competitions. In a continuing study of some 1,000 new students at Stony Brook, Dr. Aron has found that merely being in the same class where other interracial pairs were interacting can reduce levels of prejudice.
The reason such changes emerge, some psychologists argue, is that people have a selfish urge to expand their own identities through others — to make themselves a part of others’ lives, and vice versa, as lovers, parents, colleagues, friends. Studies find that that is exactly what happens in a relationship: people are not merely aware of their closest friends’ problems but to some extent feel the sting, the humiliation, the injustice.
Psychologists can manipulate this need for self-expansion. In one recent experiment, led by Stephen Wright, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, researchers had 47 students describe their workloads and activities and made each student feel either overextended or in a rut, based on bogus personality tests.
“It’s easy enough to do, because students always feel both overwhelmed and in a rut,” Dr. Wright said. Those led to feel in a rut, he went on, “were more interested than the others in having a friendship with someone with a name that is clearly from a minority group.”
This impulse pushes against any implicit or subconscious bias a person may have. When larger issues are in play, race can shrink quickly in importance. In the late 1960s, when the black politician Richard G. Hatcher was vying to become mayor of Gary, Ind., one neighborhood near the steel mills was running nearly 90 percent against him, said Thomas Pettigrew, a research professor in social psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who helped do the polling. It turned out that many people there were most concerned about a nearby city dump that cast a bad smell over the neighborhood.
After he was elected, Mayor Hatcher closed the dump, and the next election he got nearly 40 percent of the vote from the neighborhood.
“A lot of people living there cared a lot more about the dump than the color of their mayor,” Dr. Pettigrew said. About Mr. Obama’s election, he added, “the economic crisis I think has had the same impact.”
Source: NY Times

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