The resurgence of openly racist attitudes in the Trump era has led many observers to question whether the apparent reduction in prejudice in recent years was an illusion. New research provides a reassuring answer.
Researchers find that both conscious and unconscious bias regarding race and sexual orientation declined significantly between 2007 and 2016. For racial attitudes, this change was largely generational, whereas the more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality were found in the population as a whole.
That said, Americans are hardly ready to give up all our prejudices. Negative attitudes toward people with disabilities remained steady over that period, and there is evidence that obesity is becoming increasingly stigmatized.
Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji of the psychology department at Harvard University drew these conclusions after analyzing more than four million tests of implicit and explicit attitudes taken on the Project Implicit website. Visitors to the site report their attitude toward a specific group of people, and also take a test designed to uncover unconscious bias for or against that same population.
The Implicit Association Test is widely but not universally viewed as a valuable indicator of deep-seated prejudices. Researchers measure response times to various pairings of words and images, which reveal underlying assumptions.
For example, if it takes longer for someone to pair a positive word with a photo of an overweight person than it does to pair a negative word with the same image, it suggests the subject is prejudiced against obese individuals, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
The researchers examined the results of such tests covering a variety of topics, including race, age, and sexuality. They found that, over the decade in question, "all explicit attitudes revealed change toward neutrality." They conclude that this change indicates that "conscious and self-reported prejudice has decreased across time."
The results for the implicit tests were more nuanced. Unconscious bias regarding race and sexual orientation also declined over the years, but at a considerably slower rate than conscious attitudes. That suggests underlying prejudices persist even as people assert—and presumably believe—that they have become more open minded.
Attitudes toward sexual orientation showed the biggest shifts, with both young and old respondents showing "consistent past and future movement toward implicit pro-gay preference." These results appear to reflect "widespread shifts in the socio-cultural climate that affect all ages, generational cohorts, and demographics," the researchers write.
In contrast, the move away from racial prejudice was driven largely by Millennials. Unconscious racism did not significantly decrease among Baby Boomers or members of Generation X. The findings suggest that American society will gradually become less racially biased as the older generations die off.
The researchers found a disconnect between implicit and explicit attitudes toward people with disabilities: Even as respondents professed to be less prejudiced against them, unconscious attitudes did not significantly change. Similarly, people in 2016 were consciously less likely to favor young people over old than they were in 2007, but that prejudice decreased only slightly on an unconscious level.
And while people were less likely to consciously favor thinner people over heavier ones, the implicit tests found that particular prejudice actually increased over the decade. The researchers argue this may reflect "an increasing focus on health and the obesity epidemic," as well as "the perceived controllability" of the condition.
Many Americans remain more biased than they care to acknowledge—even to themselves. Overall, however, the results suggest the United States is moving slowly, haltingly, toward a less-prejudiced society.