Tropp Discusses Race-Based Discrimination at Congressional Seminar

Linda Tropp

Psychology professor Linda Tropp presented research on “The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination” on May 14 as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues’ second Congressional Seminar in the series “Psychological Insights into Legislative Issues” in Washington, D.C. She discussed the subtle ways race-based discrimination continues to affect everyday interactions and policy choices. The series, co-sponsored by the office of Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), aims to inform today’s most salient policy debates with the best of recent psychological research.  

Tropp, who directs the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program, studies how members of different groups approach and experience contact with each other, and how group differences in power or status affect views of and expectations for cross-group relations. 

Tropp told the audience that it is difficult to specify the extent to which discriminatory or prejudicial beliefs influence public policy on such social issues as affirmative action and immigration, or law and order issues as “stop-and-frisk” or “stand your ground” laws. But she emphasized that it is important for policymakers to understand the role that bias and discrimination can play and to recognize potential biases in how constituents and politicians frame, interpret and evaluate policies and programs because policies that may seem race-neutral in the abstract can have serious, racially differential consequences once they are implemented. 

She and others point out that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 brought with it the hope that the nation had entered a “post-racial” era. That hope has since faded, as racist comments from Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling recently showed. But, Tropp said, it was always a little naive to believe that one African-American could bring transformational change to the entire nation.

“The truth is, we do not live in a post-racial society,” she said. “People see race and are treated differently on the basis of race, such that racial bias and discrimination still have major impacts in our lives and in our communities. But even though we live in a shared society, we don’t all necessarily see bias and discrimination in the same way.”

Blacks and whites disagree about how much discrimination against African-Americans exists. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, some 46 percent of blacks believe that there is a “lot” of discrimination while only 16 percent of whites agree. Slightly over 40 percent of both whites and blacks believe that there is at least “some” ongoing discrimination.

Because these attitudes can be so subtle that they function largely outside of our conscious awareness, they can be difficult to recognize. Tropp said psychologists have developed ingenious tools such as the Implicit Association Test for getting at them. The test measures people’s automatic associations with different groups or objects. After describing how it works and discussing its use in research, she led the audience in an exercise.

She offered research findings of non-conscious prejudice, for example that white interviewers tend to make less eye contact, give less time and keep a greater physical distance from black job candidates than they do from whites. Large-scale “audit” surveys consistently find that résumés presumed to be submitted by black applicants are far less likely to receive interview requests or job offers than identical resumes of ostensible white applicants. Similarly, a recent study showed that professors are more likely to respond to queries from prospective white male students than from white female or non-white students.

If the bad news is that many people harbor prejudices they might not be aware of, the good news is that there are well-established strategies for overcoming them, the social psychologist noted. Among these are teaching about implicit biases and encouraging people to reflect on and replace negative stereotypes. Other strategies include fostering opportunities to engage in genuine cross-racial or cross-cultural contact such as at work, in neighborhoods and public schools. 

In a meta-analysis by Tropp and her colleague Thomas Pettigrew, they examined 515 studies dating from the 1940s to 2000 that included more than 250,000 study participants. They found that greater contact reduces prejudice by diminishing anxiety, enhancing empathy and increasing knowledge between members of different groups. Optimal conditions for contact to reduce prejudice include establishing equal status between the groups, having them work together cooperatively toward common goals and providing institutional support for this in the form of policies, laws, norms and customs.