June 1, 2007

Harmful effects of unintentional racism

Research on racism has come a long way since the old days of searching for the “racist personality.” In recent years, researchers have focused on the subtle, modern racism that pervades our culture and that perpetrators can plausibly deny.

Individuals who practice this subtle racism may not even know it. They may believe in fair and equal treatment for all, yet unconsciously harbor negative feelings toward other races. Becoming anxious and uncomfortable in interracial interactions, they adhere to formal rules of behavior while expressing their negative feelings in subtle ways that can be denied or rationalized.

The implications extend into the forensic realm. Studies of police and probation officers show that they often use racial cues to assign blame. An African American who commits a crime is likely to be seen as inherently bad or criminal, while a white person who commits a similar crime is more likely to be excused based on external factors, such as peer influence, poor parenting, or mental illness. Recommended punishments differ accordingly, resulting in greater likelihood of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for African Americans.

The unconscious nature of these biases helps to explain divergent rates of arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment despite a lack of conscious racist intent on the part of criminal justice professionals. (Other forces, of course, include persisting economic equalities.) Interestingly, the race of the professional is irrelevant. African American police and probation officers engage in just as much negative racial stereotyping of African Americans as do whites.

Research continues to flesh out the specifics of modern racism. Now come two new studies, one about its pervasiveness and the other about its harmful effects.

The current issue of the American Psychologist reports on “racial microaggressions,” which are defined as everyday indignities, often unintentional, that communicate hostile or derogatory feelings toward racial minorities. Such microaggressions are divided into microassaults (purposeful discrimination or name-calling), microinsults (rudeness and insensitivity), and microinvalidation (exclusion or negation).

The invisibility and deniability of these subtle forms of racism make them especially problematic. The recipient must try to decide whether the offensive behavior was deliberate or unintentional. If the recipient confronts the aggressor, he or she is typically labeled as oversensitive or even paranoid.

The current issue of the American Journal of Public Health reports that subtle racism is more psychologically damaging than overt discrimination. Whereas recipients can “shrug off” overt discrimination, subtle racism is more likely to be committed by colleagues, neighbors, or friends. As such, it causes recipients to feel that people do not like or accept them, thereby lowering self esteem and leading to depression.

Similar research with African Americans has found that subtle racism is most damaging to their physical health.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C., Torino, G., Bucceri, J., Holder, A., Nadal, K., & Esquilin, M. “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice.” American Psychologist, May-June 2007, Volume 62 #4, pp. 271-286.

Noh, S., Kaspar, V., Wickrama, K, “Overt and subtle racial discrimination and mental health: preliminary findings for Korean immigrants.” American Journal of Public Health, July 2007, Volume 97 #7.