“I’ve got proof I’m open-minded!”: Inventing racist roads not taken
In 2009, researchers found those who stated they supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election had a sense of having “moral credentials” that allowed them to then [overtly] favor Whites over Blacks on various tasks. And it’s still happening. Did voting for Obama offer deniability for other manifestations of racism?
The same research group has now found that when we are worried our current behavior “might seem racist” we tell ourselves that in the past we have not been racist when given the opportunity. It is, in essence, “the racist road not taken” and it paradoxically increases our willingness to express racially insensitive views. Unfortunately, it appears we simply make up (through memory distortion) that “racist road not taken”–as in, it never really happened.
The lead author explains it this way:
“Our research suggests that people demonstrate remarkable flexibility when it comes to convincing themselves that they have proven their lack of prejudice. The ability to point to blatantly racist behaviors that they didn’t perform seems sufficient for people to feel that they have non-racist credentials—even if virtually no one would have chosen to perform those racist behaviors. People are essentially willing to make a mountain of proof out of a molehill of evidence. What’s more, our results show that people are willing to go even farther and invent the molehill, convincing themselves that they passed up opportunities for racism that they didn’t actually have.”
Let’s take a look at what the researchers did via a succinct press release:
The researchers conducted a series of six experiments. The first three established that participants are more likely to express less racially sensitive views – such as saying they would prefer to hire white people instead of black people for a hypothetical job, or allocating funds to an organization serving a white community at the expense of one serving a black community – if they have specific examples of racist behavior they have foregone.
The last three focused on the memory distortion of participants—their invention of racist alternatives to their actions that they could have taken but did not.
One such experiment asked participants to identify a criminal from a lineup of suspects. The evidence clearly pointed to one particular suspect who was white. All participants accused this suspect, but one participant group was also given the opportunity to accuse a clearly innocent black suspect instead. This group later felt more comfortable expressing less racial sensitivity in response to additional scenarios since they had been faced with, but not taken, a racist viewpoint.
In a follow-up study, participants all passed up five opportunities to accuse a clearly innocent black suspect of a crime—that is, they could point to five racist roads not taken. But when participants were later made to worry about feeling prejudiced, they “remembered,” on average, that they had passed up nine opportunities for racism—in effect claiming that their past contained nearly twice as many racists roads not taken than it actually did.
In essence, the research participants found ways to say that they themselves were certainly not racist and they had the non-racist credentials to prove it. We see this sort of reaction routinely in our pretrial research with mock jurors. It’s a sort of “I don’t feel that way but I bet my neighbors do!” reaction. We purposely ask questions that will allow the mock jurors to excuse themselves but tell us honestly what they see as the prevailing attitudes in the venire. And the authors talk about this tendency in their article:
“When a racist is defined only as someone who constantly commits blatant acts of discrimination (e.g., accusing clearly innocent Black suspects of crimes), it is easier to feel that foregoing such acts proves that one is not a racist. We suspect people can draw on similarly narrow definitions of unethical behavior in other domains to convince themselves that foregoing a single opportunity to lie, cheat or steal proves they are not a liar, cheater or a thief and thus licenses them to commit other ethically questionable acts.”
This research is likely particularly scary for those representing minority clients. The opposing counsel could employ this research by incorporating the following into a closing statement:
“You may worry what others will think about a finding for [white party] in this case. It isn’t as though we are tricking you into making a biased or racist decision. We know that is not in your heart or mind, and I am sure you can point to past situations where you could have behaved in a racially biased manner but chose not to do so. We want you to deliberate based on the evidence. Not on fears of what others will think of your decisions.”
According to this research, that’s all it would likely take to elicit a sense of having “non-racist credentials” in jurors. Although it is only cold comfort, it is somewhat reassuring that the public has finally gotten to a place where blatant racism isn’t okay to admit, so that it needs at least a thin cloak of tolerance to make it acceptable.The desire to see ourselves as good, moral and possessing a variety of socially acceptable characteristics is powerful in many of us. The idea that we could have transgressed a lot more than we did could be a great source of comfort to those feeling threatened as to the public perception of their decisions.
Effron DA, Miller DT, & Monin B (2012). Inventing racist roads not taken: the licensing effect of immoral counterfactual behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103 (6), 916-32 PMID: 23002956