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Yale Professor John Dovidio spoke April 28 in support of the Interdisciplinary Center of the Science of Diversity, a new Kellogg School research initiative.

Diversity speaker examines an ‘old virus’

In ICSD speaker series, John Dovidio puts ‘aversive racism’ under the microscope to find widespread bias

By Aubrey Henretty

5/1/2008 - If you say you’re not a racist, your word alone probably won’t convince Yale University Psychology Professor John Dovidio. His research suggests that the actions of a large majority of people are motivated in part by a subtle strain of prejudice he calls “aversive racism.”

The second guest of the Kellogg School’s Interdisciplinary Center on the Science of Diversity’s spring speaker series, Dovidio brought his research insights to students at the Donald P. Jacobs Center on April 28. His talk was titled, “Racism among the Well-Intentioned: Subtle Bias in Outcomes and Interaction.”

Aversive racists are not the same as “old-fashioned racists,” said Dovidio, noting that the latter group has been studied extensively: “They say what they mean, they mean what they say, and they’re well understood psychologically.” By contrast, aversive racists are well-intentioned people whose actions don’t always line up with their professed principles.

Dovidio’s research, which largely concerns the attitudes — and, more importantly, actions — of white people toward people of other races, suggests that most white people have internalized negative stereotypes of their non-white neighbors, but that most of them do not realize it. In situations where there is an “obvious right thing to do” — such as hiring a well-qualified black candidate for a job over a white candidate with unremarkable credentials — the aversive racist will consistently do the right thing, he said. But when there is no clear right choice (e.g. when both candidates have similar credentials), aversive racists show a strong bias against the black candidate.

“The outcome is exactly the same as old-fashioned racism, though the bias is more subtle,” Dovidio said.

According to Dovidio, racism has persisted in the United States “like an old virus that has mutated into a new form,” despite concerted efforts to quash it.

“One of the things we have to understand is that we have racist traditions,” said Dovidio of U.S. citizens. The country’s founding document, he pointed out, says that all men are created equal, but as far as its laws were concerned, that statement excluded black men until 200 years after it was written. Women of all races only gained the right to vote in the last century, he added, and the Equal Rights Amendment, initially proposed in 1923, never was ratified.

With traditions like these, Dovidio said, it’s really not surprising that subtle bias has hung on. Further, the processes that lead people to mistrust those who they perceive as different are among the most basic principles of psychology: “When people tell me they’re not racist — that they have no biases at all — that’s a lot more interesting to me. They are saying that they can overcome basic psychological processes by appealing to lofty, abstract ideas.”

Dovidio says his research has changed the way he feels about interacting with people of other races. Before he studied the subtle effects of aversive racism, he thought of every exchange with anyone as a one-on-one, interpersonal interaction. Now, he senses an extra layer.

“When I’m interacting with a person of color, it’s like that Verizon commercial,” he said. “It’s me and my network of millions of white people behind me.”