The list of names and places synonymous with racially charged acts of police brutality grows longer with each passing month. Though perceptions of these events range from "incriminating exemplar" to "amplified distraction," there is a shared question on everybody's mind: Will the responses these events inspire actually produce change?
Already, there is some evidence that attitudes are changing. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 39 percent of respondents think the killings of black men by police are merely isolated incidents, a 12 percent decline relative to the results of an ABC/Washington Post poll released last year. These results were largely driven by a shift in opinions among white Americans.
Yet there’s a big difference between endorsing a particular view of society and advocating social change. Somebody can think minorities have a raw deal, but still not feel strongly enough to support the confrontation and social upheaval that might be necessary to change it. In fact, a new study suggests that, in some cases, knowing that an injustice is widespread in society can make people less supportive of those who confront it.
Privileged groups in society are both responsible for, and benefit from, the status quo, and so if prejudice is commonplace they cannot be blameless.
The study, led by Kimberly Barsamian Kahn of Portland State University, investigated how the perceived level of sexism in society influenced the degree to which individuals supported women who confronted sexism. To start, participants in the study read a paragraph leading them to believe sexism was either widespread or infrequent. Next, they read about a woman who overheard a businessman saying he preferred to hire men because they were more committed to the job. Some participants were then told the woman confronted the man about his remarks, while other participants were told she chose not to confront him. Afterwards, participants reported their support for the woman's behavior.
Female participants responded how one might expect: When led to believe that sexism was common, they were more critical of the woman for failing to confront the man. The bigger the problem, the more a response was necessary.
Disturbingly, men didn't follow this pattern. When led to believe that sexism was pervasive rather than rare, men were actually less supportive of the woman who confronted sexist behavior. Though the study examined sexism, it's not a stretch to apply the results to other forms of prejudice that exist between historically advantaged and disadvantaged groups (e.g. white/black, straight/gay, etc.).
The reasoning behind the male response comes down to the different threats they face as members of the high-status or privileged group. On one hand, men don't want to appear prejudiced themselves, so there is some motivation to be supportive of confrontation. On the other hand, privileged groups in society are both responsible for, and benefit from, the status quo, and so if prejudice is commonplace they cannot be blameless. In order to ensure their group is seen as noble and fair, members of these groups will make an effort to maintain the perception that the status quo is legitimate and just.
When faced with evidence of widespread prejudice, Khan and her colleagues believe this motivation to protect the privileged group identity becomes strong enough that it leads people to downplay the need for confrontation. Maybe prejudice exists, privileged individuals might reason, but that's the way of the world, and it's not worth doing anything about. By withholding support for confrontation, privileged group members can downplay the severity of the prejudice they effectively oversee and maintain the moral standing of their group. In other words, it is easy for privileged groups to support action if prejudice is the work of a few bad apples. But if the pervasiveness of prejudice suggests that they themselves are bad apples, they will act in ways that imply action is unnecessary.
Self-affirmation keeps people from worrying that they'll personally appear prejudiced, but it doesn't stop people from worrying about how their group will appear.
Given what we know, are there effective ways to enhance support for confronting prejudice? Self-affirmation—a process whereby threats to self-worth are mitigated by affirming core values—tends to be as close to a panacea as things get in social psychology. Self-affirmation can improve things like academic achievement, health behavior, and our ability to change our beliefs.
However, in a follow-up experiment, Kahn and her team examined the impact of a personal self-affirmation exercise. They found it had no effect on male support for confrontation when prejudice was pervasive, and it made men less likely to support confrontation when prejudice was rare. It seems self-affirmation keeps people from worrying that they'll personally appear prejudiced, but it doesn't stop people from worrying about how their group will appear. It remains to be seen whether group-affirmation rather than self-affirmation would alleviate this latter group threat and increase support for confrontation when prejudice is pervasive.
Beyond self-affirmation, research suggests that education programs can make people more cognizant of structural racism, and an awareness of longstanding structural racism may make people more open to support action.
Nothing about Kahn's study should take away from the importance of the shift in public opinion, as there are numerous factors that make it difficult to change perceptions. Studies show that white people do, in fact, have a higher threshold for admitting that something constitutes racism, along with an inferior ability to identify structural racism. A recent study also found that being in a position of power makes people more likely to recognize that they are being treated unfairly. If the powerful or privileged recognize relatively more unfairness in their own lives, they're likely to see relatively less unfairness in the lives of minorities.
Nevertheless, despite the shift in public opinion, Kahn's study is a reminder that attempting to change the status quo is not merely about changing perceptions. The support that's generated must have enough intensity that people are compelled to endorse action.