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Equality For All (Most of the Time)

A survey on discrimination taken soon after 9/11 reveals a strong belief in equality for all — although men seem more willing than women to set aside that ideal.
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We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.

Or do we?

Law professor Edward McCaffery and economist Timor Kuran have been looking into that issue for the better part of a decade. Americans tend to proclaim their allegiance to the egalitarian ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but, in private, do we believe discrimination is appropriate in certain situations, against certain types of people?

Getting an honest answer to that question isn't easy, given the social unacceptability of such views. But if there was ever a time recently when primal fear trumped political correctness in the U.S., it was in the months immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Kuran and McCaffery were grieving, too, but they also seized a unique opportunity — collecting raw data at a time of raw emotions.

In a survey conducted in January 2002, both on the telephone and the Internet, the researchers tested Americans' willingness to tolerate five forms of discrimination — some familiar from years of controversy, others that were new to the scene or under the radar. The results published in Political Research Quarterly revealed some intriguing inconsistencies, but, in the end, Thomas Jefferson would probably be pleased.

"We tried to make it safe and acceptable to be discriminatory," said McCaffery, who teaches at both the University of Southern California and the California Institute of Technology. (Kuran, formerly of USC, is based at Duke University.) "We described situations where there was a reason to discriminate — a utilitarian argument, either of economic efficiency or public safety. We gave people those reasons, then asked them if they wanted to discriminate or treat people equally."

The questions were:

• Should airlines be allowed to keep Arab Americans off an airplane flight?
Should employers be allowed to deny jobs to overweight people?
Should employers be allowed to screen job applicants through genetic testing?
When considering who should be allowed to immigrate to the U.S., should well-educated foreigners be favored over the less educated?
Should police be allowed to disproportionately stop African-American motorists?

In each case, a large majority of respondents answered "no." This came as something of a surprise to McCaffery, who expected much more acceptance in keeping Arab Americans off airplanes.

"I guess you can say equality is a very deep norm in America," he said.

But the percentage of people who were willing to tolerate discrimination in certain specific instances varied considerably depending upon the specific question being asked, the respondent's gender and — most strikingly — whether they were talking to a survey taker on the phone or filling out a form on the Web.

The idea of discriminating against poorly educated immigrants received the most support in the poll, with 27.7 percent of those reached on the phone and 32.3 percent of those on the Web agreeing with the premise. Genetic screening — which, as McCaffery noted, could in theory be used against anyone — received the least support, with 6.7 percent of phone respondents and 3.2 percent of Web respondents calling it acceptable.

Disproportionately stopping black motorists was considered acceptable by 13.7 percent of those on the phone and 13.3 percent of those on the Web. Just about the same number of people — 15 percent on the phone, and 13 percent on the Web — had no problem denying employment to the overweight.

(That latter statistic confirms a separate survey released this month by Yale University, which found that weight
discrimination is as prevalent as racial discrimination. McCaffery and Kuran's previous research suggested as much; in a 2004 paper, they reported that discrimination based on height, weight and socioeconomic status is now more prevalent than ethnicity-based bias.)

There was a significant gender gap for each question, with men consistently more willing to tolerate discrimination.

Specifically, when contacted on the phone, 28.4 percent of men were OK with discriminating against Arab-American airplane passengers, compared with 24.2 percent of women. But on the Web, 25 percent of men agreed with the proposition, compared with only 15 percent of women.

"What we saw is that men understate, and women overstate, their taste for discrimination when there's a live interviewer," McCaffery said. "When nobody's looking, women are very egalitarian and men are significantly more willing to deviate from egalitarian norms."

However, the 1,500 phone respondents and 1,800 people who took the survey on the Internet were different people, and McCaffery can't be certain he isn't comparing apples and avocados. Perhaps people who spend a lot of time on the Web and are willing to fill out a survey (they were entered into a drawing for a gift certificate as an incentive to participate) have somewhat different attitudes than those phoned randomly.

Then again, perhaps the people on the Web are being more honest.

"We know from other work we have done that there is a ‘social desirability' bias," McCaffery said. "Some people call it the ‘interviewer effect.' If you have a live person (asking you questions), there is a tendency to give conformist answers — to tell that person what you think he or she wants to hear."

So, perhaps — McCaffery admits this is conjecture — a certain percentage of women considered advocating fewer rights for Arab Americans to be the patriotic thing to say in the charged post-9/11 atmosphere. But in the total anonymity of the Internet, that pressure was off and fewer of them expressed that opinion.

Similarly, the gender gap on the issue of discriminating against overweight people was far larger on the Web (27.9 percent for men vs. 6.9 percent for women) than on the phone (18.1 percent for men vs. 11.5 percent for women). The same held true for the question of stopping African-American motorists: On the phone, the gap was relatively small (17.4 percent for men vs. 9.6 percent for women), but online it was huge (25.3 percent for men vs. 8.3 percent for women).

So if McCaffery is correct and the Internet survey produces more honest responses, a quarter or more of American males support discrimination in four of the five categories tested.

While that can be viewed as a sobering corollary to the study, it does not negate its central finding: For the great majority of Americans, even well-reasoned arguments for discrimination do not trump our deep-seated belief in equal treatment for

As McCaffery concluded: "Most people, most of the time, think you should treat people equally."