It’s been a big year for outing high-profile bigots in America. Donald Sterling’s racist comments, Richard Scudamore’s sexist jokes, and Brendan Eich’s homophobic donations all earned widespread condemnation when their private activities hit the press. (Scudamore got off without a slap on the wrist in the U.K., but was nevertheless called to account by the New York Times.) Pinning these people on their overt displays of bigotry feels good, because it’s harder than ever to find a powerful person stupid enough to employ a slur. Most people responsible for perpetuating discrimination are capable of doing so without saying a word.
A new review of studies on discrimination by the University of Washington’s Tony Greenwald and U.C. Santa Cruz’s Thomas Pettigrew makes the succinct case that discrimination in the United States is not primarily a product of overt hatred for others, but rather simple preferences for people like ourselves. In a review of five decades of psychological research, they found that while most researchers defined prejudice as an expression of hostility, the more pervasive form of bigotry in the United States comes from people who favor, admire, and trust people of their own race, gender, age, religion, or parenting status. Even people who share our birthdays can catch a break. That means that—to take just one example—sexist bias isn’t largely perpetuated by people who hate women. It’s furthered by men who just particularly like other men.
This seems like a pretty elementary point—even when more obviously identifiable, discrimination has always been used to exploit one group to secure the power of another—but apparently, it bears repeating. As my colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote last week, recent studies show many Americans believe that “if we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can’t be racism.” But the focus on overt discrimination conveniently hides the fact that “whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least”; stamping out “hatred” of racial minorities isn’t the same as conferring them power and respect. The “magic of white supremacy,” Bouie writes, “is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race.”
The study serves as a clear retort to those public figures who, when mired in controversy, insist that they don’t have a racist or sexist bone in their bodies. (Powerful people don’t need bones—they have power.) It also provides a counterargument to those who complain that disadvantaged groups are seeking “affirmative action” and “special treatment” to vault them above white, straight, rich and/or male people who have ostensibly earned their high status. (In fact, it’s those people who curry favor just by being themselves.)
But the study also suggests why it remains so difficult to end discrimination in this country: We’re not asking the powerful to stop hating, we’re asking them to cede some of their power to others. If the powerful are required to extend their networks to offer jobs to people who aren’t like them, that means that they can’t keep hiring their friends (or people who they feel have the educational pedigree and family background to one day become their friends). As the study notes, the negative effect of racial profiling by police isn’t just due to stopping and searching minority men too much, but also not stopping white people enough, as they’re more likely to yield drugs or weapons when they are targeted. Housing and employment discrimination against minorities isn’t just a case of some people missing out on the opportunities they deserve, but also of white people getting opportunities that they don’t.