When the Economy Goes South, Americans Become More Racist but Say They’re Color-Blind

Two studies reveal that we’re refusing to see how bias affects social policy.

(Photo: Stephanie Timmermann/Getty Images)

Jun 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

When fiscal times are tough in America, people of color are more likely to feel the pinch. Wealth reserves for blacks and Latinos remain at their 2009 levels, and the unemployment rate for African American recent college graduates is 12.4 percent, more than double that of their white counterparts. But a pair of new studies reveal that in a difficult economic climate, white folks may feel under attack and behave in a more prejudiced fashion. Even though minorities still struggle to achieve parity with their white peers, the success of one black person is seen as proof that racism is over.

In the study Economic Scarcity Alters the Perception of Race, a pair of New York University researchers found that a lack of financial resources “causes decision makers to perceive African Americans as ‘blacker.’ ” That “elicits disparities in the allocation of resources.” In other words, when times get tough, people of color get screwed.

To test their hypothesis that economic downturns result in greater instances of prejudice, doctoral candidate Amy R. Krosch and professor David M. Amodio asked participants in four separate experiments to classify images of mixed-ethnicity people as either black or white. The researchers then manipulated economic conditions.

In one experiment, participants were asked whether they agreed with six zero-sum arguments, such as “When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically,” “Allowing blacks to decide on political issues means that whites have less say in how the country is run,” and “More good jobs for blacks means fewer good jobs for whites.” In another, white respondents at a local city park were shown two black faces and asked how they would divide $15 between the two people.

In each of the four experiments, Krosch and Amodio found that “perceived scarcity influences people’s visual representations of race in a way that may promote discrimination.” Feeling that they themselves didn’t have enough resources also led participants to view black people as “darker” and “more stereotypically black in appearance.” The respondents then chose to allocate fewer resources to darker-skinned people.

Krosch and Amodio’s findings are particularly disturbing given that a second study, by Clayton R. Critcher, assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jane L. Risen, associate professor at the University of Chicago, found that incidental exposure to successful African Americans made non-blacks less sympathetic to issues of racism and discrimination, even when it was shown that these accomplished individuals were outliers.

“When non-blacks were exposed to African American success stories—tales of those who defied the odds, like Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier, Brown University President Ruth Simmons, and even President Obama—they became less sympathetic to more average African Americans, without even realizing it,” wrote Critcher.

The professors also found that non-black people “unknowingly reasoned, ‘If he can do it, so can they,’ ” and “were more likely to blame blacks for persisting racial disparities.”

This latest research backs up a growing mountain of evidence that shows that in the wake of the Great Recession and President Obama’s reelection, many Americans believe racism is over and that discriminatory housing, employment, and schooling practices, as well as lack of access to health care, no longer affect people of color.

A recent MTV survey found that most white Millennials describe themselves as color-blind and say they rarely discuss race. A full 70 percent believe affirmative action is unfair regardless of “historical inequalities.” Another survey, from the Pew Center for Research, found that whites were far less likely than African Americans—16 percent and 46 percent, respectively—to think “a lot” of discrimination against blacks in America still existed. A large chunk of whites even feel “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Who can forget U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts declaring “Our country has changed” in his ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act, which had long barred states from instituting policies that tend to disenfranchise voters of color?

The irony is that addressing racial bias by eliminating the prison-industrial complex and providing truly equitable health care, employment, and education opportunities could boost the economy to the tune of $2 trillion per year. Given America’s impending demographic shift to a majority minority nation, refusing to see that racism exists and affects social policy—all while becoming more prejudiced because of economic scarcity—could have dire consequences for us all.