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Modern Racism and Its Psychosocial Effects on Society – including a discussion about bilingual education

October 2, 2008

Modern Racism and Its Psychosocial Effects on Society by Neil Brick

by Neil Brick MA Ed. Author E-mail:

This paper will describe and delineate the effects of modern racism on society from a psychological perspective. It will define different forms of racism and the effects of racism on the different parts and aspects of society. I will discuss how modern racism may be a step between overt forms of racism and the elimination of racism. Data will be presented and discussed from social psychological and sociological studies. The ideas of a variety of authors writing about the topic of racism and effects will also be enumerated upon.

Racism is defined as an individual’s discriminatory behavior and prejudicial attitude toward people of a certain race or institutional practices (whether motivated by prejudice or not) that subordinate a certain race’s people. (Myers, 1993) Subtle prejudice may be defined as exaggerating ethnic differences, rejecting minorities for supposed nonracial reasons and feeling less admiration and affection for minorities. I will define modern racism as a subtle form of prejudice. I define it as modern because though some overt forms of racism appear to be on the decline (Myers, 1993) other more subtle forms still exist. Subtle forms entail a subconscious attitude that the holder may be fully unaware of, or one that is known of but repressed, but yet influences their thoughts and behavior. This attitude may become more conscious through education and self-exploration.

Sherman believes modern racism has evolved from aggressive prejudicial behavior to a more subtle form. This behavior is more difficult to see, yet is seen as more severe. Companies may promise equal opportunity, yet there is little doubt that this occurs. Subtle and modern forms of racism are thought of as creating an image that is more politically correct. This way of discriminating may be seen as a “polite” form of racism. Previously, racism was easier to define and institutionalized. (Sherman, 2000)

Aronson, Wilson and Akert define modern racism as acting unprejudiced while maintaining prejudiced attitudes. They believe that prejudice has become more subtle. People will hide prejudice to avoid being called racist, but when a situation becomes safe, their prejudice will be expressed. An example of this is, most Americans say they are opposed to school desegregation, but most white parents oppose busing their children to desegregate schools. When questioned, parents will state they don’t want their children to spend a lot of time on a bus. But most white parents don’t object to having their children bused from one white school to another, only when the busing is interracial. Modern prejudice can best be studied using unobtrusive or subtle methods. Jones and Sigall use what they call the bogus pipeline, which is a fake lie detector machine. More racial prejudice was present when the bogus pipeline was used. (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2001) This shows that people were hiding their racial prejudice, until they felt this would be discovered.

Modern racism also exists in other countries. In studies done in France, the Netherlands and Great Britain, it was found that the behavior of natives toward immigrants can be predicted from scores of both blatant and subtle measures of prejudice. People whom score high on the subtle racism scale but low on the blatant scale tend to reject immigrants in more subtle and socially acceptable ways. (Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 2001)

Subtle forms of prejudice can be measured in scientific studies. Duncan in the mid 70’s had White students observe a videotape of a White man lightly shoving a black man during an argument. Only 13% percent rated the behavior as violent. When the situation was reversed,

73% stated the Black man was acting violently. Attitude researchers like Dovidio state that the attitudes of prejudice persist in subtle forms. Critics of the existence of subtle prejudice may reply that policies opposing busing and affirmative action are enforcing the values of individual choice and self-reliance and are not prejudicial. Devine has shown that automatic emotional prejudicial reactions linger. A low prejudice person will consciously suppress prejudicial feelings and thoughts. Resentments in essence still lurk beneath the surface, though open racial prejudice has declined. (Myers, 1993)

Sue and Sue believe that ethnocentric monoculturalism is dysfunctional in a pluralistic society like the U. S. Its five components are a belief in superiority, a belief in the inferiority of others, the power to impose to standards upon less powerful groups, its manifestation in institutions and the invisible veil. (Sue & Sue, 1999) In a sense, the invisible veil could be considered a component of modern or subtle racism. People are all products of cultural conditioning. Therefore, a person’s world view operates outside of their level of conscious awareness. This world view contains biased and prejudiced belief systems. People are taught to hate and fear others that are different. The biggest obstacle toward moving to a multicultural society may be peoples’ failure to understand their unintentional and unconscious complicity that perpetuates bias and discrimination. (Sue & Sue, 1999)

Cultural tunnel vision could be considered a form of modern or subtle racism. Corey, Corey and Callanan discuss how many psychology students enter training with monocultural tunnel vision. They may make statements that they don’t want to work with poor people or minority groups. They may state implicitly or explicitly that minority groups are unresponsive to professional psychological intervention due to a lack of motivation to change or due to some sort of resistance in seeking professional help. Wrenn describes the culturally encapsulated counselor as one who defines reality with one set of cultural assumptions, shows insensitivity to individual cultural differences, accepts unreasoned assumptions with no proof, doesn’t evaluate other viewpoints nor tries to accommodate the behavior of others and is trapped in one way of thinking. Sue, Ivey and Pedersen state that many therapeutic practices are biased against racial minorities and may reflect racism. Sue claims that these practices have damaged the chance for equal access and have oppressed those culturally different in society. (Corey, Corey & Callanan, 1997)

One place where modern racism may appear is in the bilingual education and the English only debate. Crawford summarizes the opposition to Official English by stating that opponents claim the English only movement justifies racist and nativist biases below a cover of American patriotism. Secretary of education Bennett spoke in 1985, calling the Bilingual Education Act a failure and waste of money. Bennett’s office claimed his ideas were supported five-to-one by letters. Most of the supporting letters had less to do with education and had more statements about illegal aliens on welfare, communities being overrun by minorities, foreigners trying to impose their culture on Americans and the out-of-control birthrates of linguistic minorities. Opponents of bilingual education state that teaching in languages other than English will cause dissension and division and that speaking English is American and other languages un-American. (Freeman & Freeman, 1994)

Baker states that in many bilingual situations, bilingualism exists along with racism and disadvantage. Simply speaking the majority language will not suddenly change racism. The negative attitudes of majority peoples tend to be based on the fear of a different group and a fear of the loss of economic power. (Baker, 1995)

Baker states that psychological roots of racial prejudice and hostility are separate from multicultural education’s philosophical base. Some state that multicultural education may leave the racist fabric of society unaltered. When education about racism and anti-racism are left out of a multicultural program, the program may tranquilize action against racism, and divert confrontation against racism into harmless channels. Anti-racist multicultural programs should include a discussion of the structural reason why racism exists, including the institutionalization of racism. The roots of racism tend to be in fear and misunderstanding, as well as the unequal distribution of economic rewards and power. Making students bilingual in itself may not be enough to reverse the injustices and inequalities in society. Cummins believes that bilingual education only becomes effective when it becomes anti-racist education. Fishman believes that being secure in one’s own identity may be a necessary prerequisite before accepting other languages and cultures. A language minority might need to be secure in itself before its becoming multicultural. Security and status in a person’s own language might be important for accepting other cultures and languages. (Baker, 1996) An interesting question derived from this is, are people that are more insecure in their own identity more likely to be racist? Could modern racism be an intellectual ego defense mechanism used by those insecure of their own cultural identity? Or does modern racism existence in the individual also entail the individual’s lack of knowledge of the basic mechanisms of social influence on the human psyche, as well as a lack of education of those having subtly racist beliefs?

A consideration of language usage may also help explain how modern racism has continued into society. Fromkin and Rodman discuss how racial and national epithets tell us something about the users of these words. The word “boy” is not a slur when used to describe a child, but it is a slur when used to describe an adult Black man. In this case, it reflects upon that attitude of the speaker. Other words like “nigger” express the chauvinistic and racist attitudes of society. If bigotry and racism did not exist, then these slurs’ usages would either die out or lose their racist meanings. They also mention that many pejorative terms exist for women, but that there are far fewer for men. If a person views Hispanics or Blacks as inferior, then their special characteristics of speech will be seen as inferior. What the society institutionalizes, the language reflects. When everyone in society is equal and treated equally, there won’t be any concern about language differences. (Fromkin & Rodman, 1993) Modern racism may be culturally reflected in the way certain accents (such as a Hispanic accent) or dialects (such as Black English) are seen and discouraged.

Dovidio, Mann and Gaertner argue that white opposition to affirmative action is rooted largely in a subtle, pervasive form of racism they call “aversive racism.” They define aversive racism as the adaptation of one’s attitude which has resulted from assimilating an egalitarian value system with racist and prejudiced beliefs. This causes an ambivalence between racial biases and a desire to be egalitarian and racially tolerant. Some social psychologists state that aversive racists believe they are nonprejudiced and not overtly racist. But when aversive racists are uncertain about what the right thing to do is, or if they can justify their actions on something different from race, their negative feelings toward Blacks will come out. When white college students were asking to rate Black and White people on a simple “good-bad” level, the students rated Whites and Black positively. When the continuum was made more subtle, Whites were more often consistently rated better than Blacks. The researchers believed that aversive racists see Blacks as not worse, but Whites as better. When white college students were asked to rate weakly qualified Black and White job candidates, both were rejected, showing no bias. When applicants had moderate qualifications, Whites were evaluated a little bit better than Blacks. When the candidates had strong qualifications, there was a significant difference in the ratings. The bias was even more obvious when a Black person was rated in a position superior to the White person evaluating them. The researchers postulated that the bias was even greater because the possibility of being in a subordinate position to a Black person threatened deeply held (but possibly unconscious) notions of White superiority. (Tatum, 1997)

Clayton and Tangri believe the reason there is a pattern of underestimating Black candidates is due to the fact that if an evaluator expects a weak performance but sees a strong one, the strong performance is attributed to luck or effort, which can change. Strong performances based on ability can be repeated (the explanation used in this theory by White evaluators for White candidates). This shows how affirmative action’s efforts that focus on process rather than outcome may be ineffective. There are too many chances for evaluator bias to be manifested. (Tatum, 1997)

The evidence strongly suggests that segregation continues because of continuing racial discrimination in the banking industries and in real estate, the continuation of white prejudice against black neighbors and discriminatory public policies. Black ghettoes continue to contain a disproportionate number of the nation’s poor, creating an extremely disadvantaged environment that only Black people face. The quality of life in White neighborhoods has not changed very much over the years, but poor Black neighborhoods have negatively changed greatly. In many metropolitan areas, three-quarters of Black Americans are highly segregated. Intense segregation causes a concentration of poverty 27 percent worse than would occur under complete integration. White Americans may endorse open housing in principle, yet they are reluctant to live in neighborhoods with high numbers of Blacks. The main issue is how race and class interact to create walls to Black socioeconomic progress that are intense, severe and durable. (Massey & Fischer, 1998) Racism in this case has created an extremely detrimental effect on Black Americans.

Sherman describes one type of modern racism, the glass ceiling effect. This describes the invisible differences in appraisal, salary and position between men and women. Modern racism may also be seen in the myths that certain races may be better or worse in certain abilities, such as Blacks being better at jumping and running. Due to a lack of familiarity with other races, people are more likely to unconsciously discriminate against others. (Sherman, 2000)

Axelson discusses the ramifications of racism. He defines racism as the belief that some races are inherently superior to other races. Prejudice is defined as the emotional aspect of racism. The way a culture or a nation names themselves or other nations, may betray their prejudices. Farb states that when U. S. citizens call themselves Americans, they effectively ignore all other peoples of the Americas. Racial prejudice, defined as a psychosocial process, can be used to make one feel superior to others by making erroneous assumptions based on racial characteristics. The reality is, statistically speaking, the genetic differences between two different geographical populations are the same as the differences within one population. Racial preconceptions will hinder the development of the higher levels of personality functioning, for those perceiving it and those perceived by it. The term “cultural group” is more accurate and acceptable language than using the term “race.” (Axelson, 1998)

Racist attitudes can be used to subtly control and subjugate other groups. Racism plus power equals control. Racism plus power plus control equals intergroup and interpersonal conflict. A perpetuation of racial superiority helps the dominant group maintain things they way they are to keep their advantages over the subdominant groups. These benefits include the gains manifested in personal psychological feelings. Axelson defines culture lag as the period of time it takes for a society to reach one of its valued goals. The elimination of racism may be one of these goals. (Axelson, 1998)

Axelson defines three forms of racism, individual, institutional and cultural. In individual racism, in a circular and reciprocal process, those perceived as inferior may internalize the other’s perception as valid and behave accordingly. The person perceived as inferior may develop a self-fulfilling prophecy in relation to this, until this cycle is broken. Individualistic racist beliefs include those that state that all people are treated fairly and equally and can pull themselves up by themselves, denying the existence of racism entirely and laughing at racist jokes. The effects of individual racism include lowered self-esteem and inadequate self-concept. The Pygmalion effect is a self-fulfilling prophecy where people conform to others’ expectations regardless of their true abilities. Racism may become a state of mind and a set of emotions and values, and a set of behaviors. Individual racist modes range from hostile domination to passive acceptance (defined as avoiding, ignoring or pretending to be correct and polite). In the social changes of the last twenty years, change, like the reduction of outward hostility has occurred, yet more understanding is needed before equal acceptance and good will can occur. (Axelson, 1998)

Institutional forms of racism may include police practices, unemployment, housing and education issues, discriminatory practices and inadequate welfare programs. Cultural racism may show up in the forces behind majority group dominance in deciding what is socially valuable. People tend to take as valuable what is most familiar to them. Prejudiced attitudes can be found in many cultural elements, including language, education, religion, norms of morality, economics and aesthetics. A mental and emotional connection of the majority group with cultural superiority and connecting minority cultures to cultural inferiority makes cultural racism. This is the hardest racism to recognize. Jones states that cultural racism occurs when a race’s achievements are ignored in education and when white Western-European cultural attributes are considered to be without question the best in the world. (Axelson, 1998)

The use of the terms racism and racist may evoke negative responses and may not help improve group relations. It has been proposed that the use of the term “bias” may be more advantageous and may more accurately reflect the actual conditions in society today. Bias may be defined as an unreasoned distortion of a person’s judgement. This may lead to a slanted viewpoint, caused by ignorance and a lack of information. Racism could be defined as representing only extreme conditions. (Axelson, 1998)

But does the use of the term “bias” help to weaken the terminology used to define modern racism. Or perhaps both approaches may be necessary from a psychological perspective. The first, using the term “modern racist,” may wake a person up to the fact that their perspective is racist or at least biased. The second can describe to a biased person that they have a cognitive and emotional bias that needs to change for their growth and societies’ growth as well.

Racism and levels of prejudice can also be measured and discussed in self tests and questionnaires. Brannigan describes an active learning experience which is a slightly modified version of a part of Dunton and Fazio’s Motivation to Control Prejudiced Reactions Scale. The higher the score, the greater the taker’s motivation to control prejudice. Another exercise asks questions about discrimination. The first question asks about a time they felt they were discriminated against and how they felt about it. The second question is prefaced by Devine’s beliefs that one’s decision to renounce prejudice will not immediately eliminate discrimination, but one must overcome a lifetime of socialization experiences first. It is like breaking a bad habit. It takes energy, conscious attention and effort. The second question asks about a time the taker felt they discriminated against someone else. The last question asks about what one can do to reduce prejudice and discrimination. (Brannigan, 2002)

In conclusion, modern racism as defined has had serious deleterious effects on the United States culture and society. These effects are manifested in language, ideas, schools, language policies, economic stratification social segregation, housing markets, hiring and promotional schemas, minority members’ psychological issues and minority access to a variety of social services and opportunities. The development of modern racism, though discouraging, can be seen as a positive development from the perspective of the decline of the more overt forms of racism. However, the lack of knowledge or the denial of the more subtle forms of racism can be extremely detrimental to both majority and minority group members.

The advent and development of the more modern and subtle forms of racism can be seen as a major step change along the road toward the goal of the elimination of overt racism and the total elimination of racism. However, it needs to be fully seen as only a step, albeit a big one in some ways, but one that needs to be moved to the more advanced step of the total elimination of racism. Those that don’t see modern racism or refuse to acknowledge its existence may in essence be blocking the progress toward the step of the total elimination of racism. Or their denial of this step may simply be part of a natural progression of a healthy growth process, where people move from the improvement of almost eliminating overt racism, at least in most parts of society, to where people need to see the next step to progress further.

Ways to educate people to move toward the final step of the total eradication of prejudice and racism may include taking self tests and questionnaires to develop the awareness of their individual biases, promoting views that encourage the acceptance of all cultures and languages as valuable, remembering that overcoming racism, bias and prejudice is like overcoming a bad habit and that one needs to be persistent in their efforts to overcome socially promoted internalized biases, education about the deleterious personal and social effects of racism and the studies that show its pervasive existence and dealing with the psychological issues of personal insecurities to ensure that one is able to accept other cultures. Major steps have been made toward the elimination of racism in the past 40 years. With increased vigilance, hard work and public education, our society should be able to move from the intermediate step of the development of modern racism to the final step of the elimination of racism.


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