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Non-Racists Are Not Free of Bigotry

New research finds people who are devoid of ethnic or racial bias still find groups to stereotype and ostracize.

There has emerged a new free speech pattern on college campuses: Angry student demonstrators accuse a guest speaker, or even a faculty member, of racism, and demand their banishment. Nuanced examinations of the person's views are trampled by the loudly expressed assertion that their attitude is inherently unacceptable.

This trend greatly disturbs left-leaning thinkers like Jonathan Chait, who see it as a threat to traditional liberal values such as free speech and open debate. But it illustrates an unfortunate truism: Most, if not all, human beings divide the world into "people like us" and "outsiders."

If you're an actual racist, the outsiders you fear and dislike are members of a different ethnic group. But don't think that just because you're free of that particular bias, you are untouched by the unfortunate tendency to reduce individuals into arbitrary categories, and judge them accordingly.

Non-racists, it turns out, can also be bigots.

That's the conclusion of controversial new research, which reports purportedly tolerant people can be highly intolerant of those who live by a different set of principles. What's more, it suggests this dynamic is driven more strongly by the perception "He's not one of us" than by any strongly held moral conviction.

"Ethnic tolerance does not inevitably translate into universal tolerance towards everyone," writes a research team led by psychologist Boris Bizumic of Australian National University. "The ethnically tolerant can be discriminatory, prejudiced, and politically intolerant."

In the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bizumic and his colleagues describe four studies that back up this thesis—two featuring Australians, and two follow-ups using British and American participants, respectively. The Australian ones examined attitudes toward people who agree with "the controversial policy of compulsorily confining asylum seekers for long periods of time."

"Study One suggested that those lower in ethnocentrism were not only intolerant of (immigration opponents') ideas, but also of people supporting those ideas—not wanting them as romantic partners, friends, neighbors, or even fellow citizens," the researchers report. "Study Two suggested that those lower in ethnocentrism tended to be politically intolerant and prejudiced against (the hard-liners on immigration), wanting to censor the individuals with different views."

Angry denunciation doesn't change anyone's mind; it just feels satisfyingly self-righteous.

The third study, which was conducted in the United States, "showed that the link between ethnical tolerance and prejudice was not an artifact of the liberal vs. conservative division," but rather was found even after controlling for such ideological views. But the final study, which featured 522 citizens of the United Kingdom, was arguably the most disturbing.

As in the previous experiments, participants completed surveys indicating their level of ethnocentrism, and their "attitudes towards racists and prejudiced people." They were then asked two questions: how strongly they personally identify with those two groups, and the extent to which their "feelings about ethnic diversity are a reflection of my core beliefs and convictions."

The results confirmed the earlier findings, and found intolerance was driven by "the perception of prejudiced and racist people as an out-group, and not moral conviction."

In other words, people screaming "No to racists on campus" may think they're acting out of principle, when in fact they—like the people they are protesting—have simply identified an enemy, and condemned them out of hand.

To be sure, calling out racism is important, especially in an era when hate crimes are on the rise. But angry denunciation doesn't change anyone's mind; it just feels satisfyingly self-righteous. And reducing a person to their views on race (which were undoubtedly learned at a very young age) makes it impossible to forge the kind of connection that could lead to productive dialogue.

But that's what we do. As Bizumic and his colleagues conclude: "Perhaps only highly religious people, such as certain Buddhists, Taoists or Quakers, and highly morally advanced individuals could tolerate, like, value, and accept all people equally, regardless of these people's values and beliefs."