Americans still believe in racial hierarchies

So much for a post-racial society...

(Image credit: (iStock))

Remember all that talk about how the United States is becoming a post-racial society? New research throws cold water on the concept, suggesting that, at least on an unconscious level, Americans retain their belief in a race-based hierarchy.

In a large-scale study measuring implicit judgments, Americans — not surprisingly — showed a strong liking for their own racial group. But beyond that bias, their answers revealed a consistent set of racial rankings, with whites being most associated with positive thoughts, followed by Asians.

Surprisingly, African-Americans did not end up at the bottom of the list. It appears that unfortunate place has now been reserved in our collective psyches for Hispanics.

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The research team, led by University of Virginia psychologist Jordan Axt, found similar hierarchies for religion (with Christianity receiving the most positive associations) and age (the same goes for children). Their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that if you are an older, Hispanic Muslim, you’re at the bottom of the social ladder.

Axt and his colleagues used data from the Project Implicit website, in which visitors are invited to take a variety of tests designed to reveal both their overt and underlying beliefs. Their first study utilized data from 97,641 American citizens or residents who visited the site between June 2012 and April 2013. Sixty-one percent were female; their mean age was 30.

After disclosing their own demographic information, all participated in one version of the Implicit Association Test, which is designed to measure the automatic, unconscious associations we make between people, objects, and ideas. In essence, a series of words conveying good or bad feelings are paired with faces of people of different races. Slower responses to the pairing of good words like "love" and "pleasant" with, say, black faces are considered an indication of negative attitudes toward blacks.

"For participants of all racial and ethnic groups, the order of implicit racial preferences was the same," the researchers report. "(All) exhibited the most positive associations for their own racial group. In addition, their implicit evaluations of the remaining racial groups always placed white people first, followed by Asian, black, and then Hispanic people."

The second study, featuring 353,048 participants, paired positive and negative words with terms commonly associated with various religions, such as "Gospel" for Christianity, "Koran" for Islam, and "Karma" for Buddhism.

The results were very similar to the race study. Members of each faith "exhibited the most positive associations for their own religion," the researchers write. "In addition, their implicit evaluations of the remaining religions always placed Christianity first, followed by Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism (the tests featured one or the other of those two), and then Islam.

In the final study, which focused on age, "implicit evaluations placed children highest," Axt and his colleagues report, "followed by young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults." This suggests even privileged male Christians will see a loss of status as they enter their senior-citizen years.

Axt and his colleagues suspect these findings reflect two different psychological processes. Our desire to maintain a positive social identity leads us to favor our own group and consider it superior to others. On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, we have a bias toward seeing society as just and fair.

The first process explains why our own ethnic or religious group comes out on top; the second, known as system justification theory, explains why the people with the most power are also implicitly viewed as the most worthy.

There are several caveats to these conclusions. Some critics have questioned whether the Implicit Association Test is truly a valid indicator of racial prejudice. Also, the data was not collected from a nationally representative sample.

But that said, the number of participants was quite large, and the IAT is widely accepted in the research psychology community. These results may not be definitive, but they provide compelling evidence that a truly post-racial America has yet to materialize.

Pacific Standard grapples with the nation's biggest issues by illuminating why we do what we do. For more on the science of society, sign up for its weekly email update or subscribe to its bimonthly print magazine.

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