The Double Edged Passion

Now our Eagle-hating Rattler presumably has an intact brain, but he still might not have been aware of how the right motivational context could have rewarded his early fumblings in the direction of prejudice. But if asked, he will confabulate reasons about stupidity, jerk-ishness, and odious smells. And then he will believe them.

Why We Think We Hate - Me? Prejudiced?

Currently in North America, the predominant belief about "why we hate" is that "we don't." When asked “who are you prejudiced against?” most people respond as if the question was about their predilection for eating puppies.
Of course, most understand " prejudice," here, to be synonymous with "hating ethnic minorities," with a sideline in hating gays, and sometimes women. Christian Crandall (2002) points out that prejudice comes in a continuum, ranging from not-at-all hated groups (e.g., nurses) to very slightly disliked ones (e.g., Americans/Canadians, depending which side of the border you live on), to more openly disliked groups (e.g., prostitutes, gambling addicts), to the outright reviled (e.g., child molesters, rapists). But what about ethnic groups? Is prejudice against them dead? Adults may use more sophisticated epithets than 'smelly' (well, sometimes), but do we have more in common with Sherif's boys than we care to admit?

The last half century has seen a steady decline in racial stereotyping - or at least, the type people admit to on surveys. There is a fair bit of regional variation in this of course, with equality being more fashionable in some places than others. As part of her research, one of my colleagues asked students in Texas "what is the worst thing that could happen to you?" to which some girls wrote: "I would become pregnant by a Black man." Such a response would be considered unimaginably embarrassing at a liberal arts school in, say, Boston. This isn’t to suggest that all Texans are prejudiced or that all Bostonians aren’t, merely that the norms demanding outrage at prejudiced behavior are not equally strong everywhere.

But is prejudice really clearing up completely, if only in the staunchest bastions of egalitarianism? The late eighties saw several broadly similar theories emerge, each describing people as being conflicted over the expression of prejudice. Prejudiced actions would only emerge, these theories claimed, when they could somehow be coded ( ambivalent racism theory), explained away ( aversive racism theory), or when conflicting egalitarian beliefs were out of mind ( symbolic racism theory).

Ambivalent racism theory argued that while "old fashioned" blatant hatred may be on the wane, its more subtle cousin, resentment, often creeps in to fill the hole. Reasoning along these lines McConahay invented the enormously influential modern racism scale, which aimed not directly at prejudice itself, but indirectly at people dragging their feet over steps to oppose prejudice. His scale quizzed people on issues such as whether Blacks were getting too pushy for civil rights, and whether Blacks’ anger was really so justified.

Gaertner and Dovidio (1986) took a subtly different approach, arguing that people don’t so much code their prejudices, as they acquire highly aversive feelings when those prejudices emerge too blatantly. Among the enormous volumes of evidence they accumulated for this aversive racism theory is one study that illustrates the difference particularly well. At an American university they found a significant drop in the amount of prejudice shown on the Modern Racism Scale between 1988 and 1999. On the surface of things, it seemed, progress was being made. But a second test showed far less encouraging results.

They asked students to evaluate a White or Black job candidate who was given credentials that were varied to be either weak, middling, or strong. The candidate’s race made no difference when his credentials were weak or strong. Nobody felt they could justify hiring a weak White candidate, or blatantly rejecting a strong Black one. But when he was given middling credentials, students had some wiggle room, with plausible reasons to hire or fire either way. In both 1988 and 1999 students said a middling candidate should be hired far less often when a photograph showed him to have Black skin rather than White. The only time race influenced people’s action was when they were able to plausibly claim that it hadn’t.