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February 7, 2005

Subtle Racism Focus Of
Psychology Professor’s Research

Jack Dovidio

Jack Dovidio, a professor of psychology, has been studying the nature of racial prejudice for more than 30 years.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

While overt expressions of racism have declined significantly in the past 35 years, another, more subtle kind of racism has taken their place, says a UConn professor of psychology.

“Racism doesn’t disappear because laws change,” says Jack Dovidio, a social psychologist who has been studying racism and stereotyping for nearly 30 years. Dovidio says poverty, unemployment, and high levels of infant mortality among blacks led him to study the nature of prejudice.

Much of his research has focused on subtle racism.

“Old-fashioned racism was blatant,” Dovidio says, “while subtle racism is often unintentional and unconscious.” But the effects are nonetheless damaging, he says, and they foster miscommunication and mistrust.

Categorizing People
“Consciously, we all endorse egalitarian values because that’s the American way,” Dovidio says. “But we’ve grown up in a society where historically blacks have not been treated equal. Racial stereotypes that are perpetuated in the media are less favorable of blacks than whites. Our culture has had a racist tradition embedded in it.”

He adds: “Human beings have a natural tendency to categorize people as either ‘like you,’ or ‘not like you.’ Cross-culturally, you find that if you categorize somebody as in your group, you like them better than somebody not in your group. In America, race is one of those critical dimensions that are an automatic categorization.”

Dovidio says racism also makes some people “feel more secure, and people are motivated to maintain their status, resources, and control.”

So while many people endorse egalitarian principles, and don’t believe they are prejudiced, in fact they’re exposed to negative societal forces and do have unconscious negative feelings and beliefs, Dovidio says: “The feelings and beliefs that underlie subtle racism are hypothesized to be rooted in normal ways of thinking, embedded in history, culture, and institutional policies.”

Dovidio, who joined the University faculty in 2003, and Samuel L. Gaertner, University of Delaware professor of psychology, were recently named joint winners of the Kurt Lewin Memorial Award by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). The award is named for the late Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the science of group dynamics and a founder of SPSSI. It is presented annually for outstanding contributions to the development and integration of psychological research and social action.

Unconscious Biases
Differences in the perceptions between blacks and whites about the treatment of blacks have persisted despite the civil rights movement, Dovidio says. “Given the magnitude of these different views, it isn’t surprising that race relations in the United States are characterized by racial distrust.”

Dovidio says those who are subtly biased do not discriminate directly in ways that can be attributed to racism. They will discriminate, often unintentionally, when their behavior can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, he says. For example, his research has shown that when a job applicant is clearly the best candidate for a position, discrimination against black applicants does not occur. However, when both candidates have the same credentials, with similar strengths and weaknesses, white candidates are given the benefit of the doubt while black candidates are not.

Dovidio notes that the negative feelings that subtle racists experience include feelings of anxiety and uneasiness.

Over the years, Dovidio has conducted studies that have demonstrated how subtle racism can influence different perspectives of blacks and whites, and how that has been detrimental to the improvement of race relations.

He has also conducted research on intergroup relations and on how prejudice and discrimination can be reduced.

“People need to be made aware of their unconscious biases in a non-threatening way,” Dovidio says. “We also need to recognize that groups of people with different histories and perspectives may experience the same events differently. They need to accept the validity of their different perspectives.”

He says people who have had positive interracial experiences in elementary school tend not to have unconscious racial bias. “It’s harder to change as people get older,” he notes.

Before coming to UConn, Dovidio was at Colgate University for more than 20 years, where he was provost and dean of faculty and chair of the psychology department. He earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Delaware.